As One Fire Consumes Another
by John Sibley Williams
Orison Books, 2019

It is 2020 and it seems that we all feel immersed in destruction. Destruction surrounds us and we struggle to understand our own complicity in it. This was true when John Sibley Willams’ book, As One Fire Consumes Another was released in April 2019, and seems to have become an even more pressing reality in the year since. It is a difficult burden to bear, and most of us would prefer to avoid directly addressing the difficulty of contemporary life. As One Fire Consumes Another does not allow us to do that. It is a troubling and necessary book because it does not allow us to look away. Instead, John Sibley Williams pushes us to confront a destruction so complete that it consumes itself. Repeatedly throughout this collection of prose poems, Williams expresses this confrontation through a voice at once frantic and lyrical: “When the lights go on & everything we’ve made flickers & flares & fulfills its promise, we find ourselves to have always been the scorpion on the turtle’s back. The river is deep, inescapable. All our wings are made for burning” (pg 42). The poems burn brightly and—as predicted by the book’s title—they speak across pages to each other, as fires consuming each other to form one conflagration.

The voice in the book is steady and consistent so that, as the book progresses, the reader is presented with a tapestry of small flames burning together, consuming themselves to be a larger, collaborative fire. In “American Quanta,” Williams writes, “Derelict barns burn as fiercely as the ones we keep our horses in. I don’t know if theory is the same as the cramps that ache my hands when weather shifts or if callouses are just synonyms of stars” (pg 37). The uncertainty of the fate of the barns—both derelict and occupied—pairs with an anxious examination of the self, and suggests our safety and our destruction are equally likely. We do not know which is in store. The relentless willingness of these poems to examine the possibility of doom is underscored by Williams’ confidence in the leaps he makes between ideas. The movement of the poems juxtaposes images unpredictably, but are linked with a careful lyricism that carries the reader through each poem.

Williams seems primarily concerned with destruction, yet within such destructiveness there is an undeniable beauty. A beauty that seems to only be earned when the destruction is confronted and acknowledged. In “Say Uncle:” “Surrender: Uncle. A body warring itself into manhood. A promise never to yield again. A planned kind of forest fire. All the hills inside are burning. The hills have always been burning. I name the world: hurt” (pg 15).

The beauty and destruction articulated in this collection do not contradict each other, but instead work together, moving toward a state that resembles resilience, even hope. And yet that hope is not simple. Williams complicates, such as in “Small Treasons,” where he comments, “There must be a place where hands aren’t cages & cages aren’t gestures well-intentioned but failing. Where we love with more than body & hurt & know when we have hurt. Somewhere, a less flammable history, at least where the sparks fly upward before falling back to ash” (pg 11). The hope is present, evident in confident phrases like “There must be a place”, but is made more real by its presentation side-by-side with a portrait of a reality where hands are cages.

The movement of this collection is not toward offering any particular solutions to current devastation. Instead, Williams invites movements that pull the reader toward seeing and acknowledging ourselves as we are, as in “The Detainee is Granted One Wish:”

Nothing shatters, yet our voices are made entirely of glass. Yes, nothing stays, yet here we are in the same small prison touching hands &, yes, sharing breath. If this is our liturgy, let there be so much damn smoke & dance & flagellation & lovemaking that our fathers finally recognize us. (pg 20)

Williams’ book doesn’t invite complacency or non-action, but rather pushes us to keep our eyes open to a new vision of a difficult world through recognizing the way beauty and destruction are often woven together, not separate entities so much as two aspects of one complicated reality. We encounter this multiplicity again and again, such as in “I Sometimes Forget This Isn’t About Us.”

The yes, we can be better than this chanted from pews; the some kinds of people have it coming added over steepled hands each night before bed. The evening news says something about a trailer crammed with children overturning on a desolate tract of earth bordered by this & that country. Midnight, or just after, our bedsheets tucked high over our eyes, in no particular order the dead return to us, palms open, as if in apology, or self-defense. (pg 12)

Williams’ powerful voice adds momentum to this collection: the poems we encounter here are breathless and irresistible. They leap between metaphors and revel in the sound of language. A reader feels compelled to move through the poems quickly, and then to return to the beginning again, to read them through more slowly. And the poems reward re-reading. They are dense with vivid images and layered into unexpected juxtapositions. The movement of the language is incisive, pushing the reader to see familiar things in new ways. As One Fire Consumes Another burns brightly as a lyrical lament for a complicated world, and simultaneously resonates a song that points us towards hope.

Williams is a necessary voice to address contemporary chaos. The wisdom in this book is hard-won and, as a result, its turn towards hope is believable:

Through your hands clasped over your eyes, as if skin could hold the world at bay. Through our hard shadows tossed against harder wall. Old & resewn flags. Night & still it is night. After all our mistakes, let’s say we can return to whatever love was, before we named it. (pg 44)


Hannah Cobb
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