Book Review: John Sibley Williams’ Disinheritance


John Sibley Williams 
Apprentice House, 2016 

4 Stars


For much contemporary poetry, there is a game being played by the poet with the audience. It is one of clues and misdirects, of intensely personal metaphor, and strident cryptic proclamations. There is nothing about such poetry that isn’t riveting, compelling readers to engage rather than merely sitting back and hearing the empty beauty of well-strung words. However, there is always room for poetry that eschews ellipticism but refuses stolid narrativity. Disinheritance by John Sibley Williams is one such collection of poems; it is unsettling, yet eminently accessible.

There is a boldness to the poetry of Disinheritance making it trivial to call it inspiring, yet certainly nearly every poem is impelling. It would be easy to look at the tone and tenor of Williams’ collection as somber, however, it would do a disservice to the work to view it as dramatic seriousness. Such an angle will set the reader squarely in the pocket of melodrama, and there is nothing melodramatic about these poems. While certainly earnest, the intellectual and aesthetic seriousness of Disinheritance make the collection an acolyte of the meditative poetry of John Donne. And while certainly not the caliber of the metaphysical master poet, readers with a love of Donne stand a good chance to find an affinity with Williams’ collection.

The lyricism of Williams’ poetry is firmly rooted in the deep connections of family and regularly conveyed through ruminations on the natural world as in the poem ‘Paean’:

There are trees here
hungry for nutrients you’ll soon bequeath them.
There are microscopic creatures
who know coffins endure the elements only so long.
And I hunger alongside them,
wondering if voice ends
with its body.

Yes, the shovel has already
forgotten your name,
the stone has forgotten, and the wood,
perhaps one day the photographs and house.
But the earth is patient
as a sapling’s first leaf,
indifferent yet ravenous.

Someday if I am devoured
by the same gnawing roots, perhaps
your tree will remember me.

While grief may seem the the thematic entry into these poems (and it is definitely present), it quickly becomes clear that what is at stake in these poems is a kind of metaphysical temerity–the costs of progression from generation to generation.

Written across the lake’s restless
surface, why does the sun
read as a sorrowful path
that relies so heavily
on where it has been
and where it is going,
on our past burnings and the terrible
ash of no-longer-being?

–For My Mother, in Parting

As such, the strongest poems of Disinheritance resonant with a commendable Stoicism wrestling with the intensity of human emotion like in the poem ‘Miscarriage’:

This body, I can
only pronounce its shadow.
The rest we have taken
as a necessary silence;
his name buried deep
in the organ’s rusty refrain,
his legacy clasped between
two hundred steepled hands,
his flight away from us etched
into someone else’s book,
his voice drowned out by the praise
that is just another wall
in a house, like any other,
erected on the undesigned earth.

Williams has given us a large collection of poems allowing us to revel in its impact. The world of Disinheritance tasks us to ruminate on interconnection, our relationships through time, to the end of embedding us more firmly in authentic experience.


Author Bio


John Sibley Williams is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently Disinheritance (Apprentice House, 2016) and Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013), and has served as editor of the recent Northwest poetry anthologies Alive at the Center (Ooligan Press, 2013) and Motionless from the Iron Bridge (barebones books, 2013). A seven-time Pushcart nominee, John has won various awards, including the Philip Booth Poetry Prize, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Nancy D. Hargrove Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry. John co-founded the Inflectionist poetry movement, edits its journal, The Inflectionist Review, and serves as Board Member of the Friends of William Stafford and Co-Director of the Walt Whitman 150 organization. He also co-founded the Moonlit Poetry Caravan, a Portland-based critique group. John holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Rivier College and a MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University, where he served as Acquisitions Manager of Ooligan Press and Marketing Manager of Three Muses Press. Currently John works as Marketing Director of Inkwater Press and as a freelance literary agent and publicist, representing poets and writers of fiction and nonfiction. He lives in Portland, Oregon.


♦◊◊◊◊–1 Star: Poorly conceived and written, not worth anyone’s time

♦♦◊◊◊–2 Stars: Limited audience, mediocre writing

♦♦♦◊◊–3 Stars: Solid writing, decent ideas and execution, genre appropriate

♦♦♦♦◊–4 Stars: Good writing, engaging ideas and execution

♦♦♦♦♦–5 Stars: Superb writing, excellent ideas and execution, appealing to all audiences


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