by John Sibley Williams,
Futurecycle Press 2013
We are born and rush from
the dim room of certainties
into the vast, bright
This quote explains life as seen through the lens of Williams’s enigmatic, highly conceptual poetry: a departure from the clear, the obvious, the known –a perpetual quest into the territories of mind and soul whose exploration spans longer than a lifetime. In these poems, we dwell in a sea of un-knowing, clinging to the very limited bits of information that are accessible to us. The choices we make, the directions we pursue define and undefine us, every choice loaded with a mourning for its alternatives.
In the interests of full disclosure, Controlled Hallucinations is by no means my first encounter with John Sibley Williams. The two of us have collaborated on many projects in the Portland literary scene and co-edit The Inflectionist Review (inflectionism.com).
“I still react in words, take comfort in their distance,” one of the poems offers. The focus is on a preference for words as a mode of reaction (reaction processed through a verbal interpretation) – but a choice that also relies on distance as comfort. Is distance desirable for our self-preservation? Do words exist to bring us closer to one another and the world around us, or to separate us? (William Burroughs’s dictum “Language is a virus” comes to mind.)
An introvert’s vision? A sober realization of the impossibility of doing a perfect job, as a poet? For no matter how closely the words approximate their meanings, the distance in subjectivity remains insurmountable. It is the imperfection inherent in humanity that Controlled Hallucinations honors, our mortality itself being the most significant defect. The imperfection of perception, thought, memory:
In time, everything has become
Memory, that artificial mechanism evolution has created for us to keep track of our relationship with time. Memory, a cause of intense longing and joy, which grants each significant event an ongoing meaning. Where does this growing universe of meanings lead us? Can we trust it? Can we even trust the poems themselves? We better not trust them excessively, as the ironic, self-questioning voice insists:
Do not worry.
The knives I display in this poem
cannot even cut an overripe fruit.
But the poem is not harmless, and the knives remain a permanent presence as an inherent possibility rather than a specific silverware form. Thus the poet honors us with a handsome gift of choice. He serves as a mere guide to the multiple possibilities inherent in the text, while the reader is in charge of most interpretive choices.
We are born of a question
and dance together
as its answer.
No wonder. In the founding statement for Inflectionism, a poetry movement Williams co-founded, he explains: “Images should remain wet cement. Concepts and emotions reside in the gray area of interpretation, the interplay of meaning and translation. In other words, the substance of poetry develops from achieving a delicate balance of text and not text, of stating what you mean without stating your intent, of white space not just around but also within the words you use.”
The inventive, humanly important work presented in Controlled Hallucinations is faithful to this aesthetic vision. It speaks to us on many levels. It engages us intellectually, it puzzles us, it moves us. It leaves room for us to step in and feel at home. We can even make ourselves a cup of tea, as long as we are careful with any misplaced knives.
Let’s be birds together for a moment,
hollering across this shared distance,
and see if the sky is too small.
We enter the poetry of John Sibley Williams as birds, as questions, as entities eluding definition. We wonder around, we get lost, we find ourselves again. We get lost. We might never want to leave.