I finished John Sibley Williams’s Scale Model of a Country at Dawn on a beautiful January afternoon in Oregon. I had already taught a class on Zoom, been out for a cup of coffee, and checked in on the news during lunch. Such an American day in these times, tranquil enough and easy. But the hands travel all the way round the clock many days without me ever parsing the paradox of this life the way Sibley Williams does in these poems.
In the three sections of Scale Model of a Country at Dawn—“Ordinary Beasts,” “Suture,” and “Object Permanence”—Sibley Williams crafts a diorama of life as we live it. The foundation of the book, almost invisible, is the poet himself. He is a boy being raised, a man raising children, a lover. He grapples with discipline, with God, with cancer, but the poems are never about him. His lived experience provides the skeleton for a worldview somewhere between delicate and brutal. It is a compelling read, sometimes like studying a train wreck, but so beautiful you cannot look away.
None of the poems are easy—this is probably not a book to be read on the bus. There’s a certain amount of training necessary to learn to read John Sibley Williams. He is unembarrassed to use particular language (theoretical, technical, abstract) and he might well begin a poem using one pattern of line breaks and scansion and then shift to another. He never lulls. His plan cannot be taken for granted. In fact, many of the poems shake your hand and offer you a tour through what seems to be a simple apartment, only to drop you into a canyon just a few lines later, but always, always, you are swept up by the end, left not with an understanding, but a feeling. Never an answer. It is deft, beautiful, not particularly easy, but once I got the hang of it, I felt I had entered another space, slipped not into the poet’s knowledge but his understanding, his sensibilities. It’s a beautiful book. I can’t quite verbalize what it “means,” but I can try to explain what it made me feel.
The title poem of the first section of the book, “Ordinary Beasts,” introduces us to the poet’s children, who exist below a sky “peeling back layer after layer like an onion,” an unusual image to describe the sky, but we take it one step further:
what you can find beneath
what you’re looking for.
We find maggots under a dead deer, his son under the poet’s own body in play, then we receive the image of a necklace, not of paper clips but of “enemies’ ears.” Nothing is what it seems. We are screaming into the void, into a mirror.
All of the poems occupy this prismatic reflection. They stand independently, but there’s another conversation going on underneath. It only takes a couple of poems to start feeling the “grinding beneath us” that might “eventually swallow what it raised” (“Being Islands”) and pay attention. The miniature version of our society that Sibley Williams constructs rests on thin ice.
Don’t be afraid that this book is didactic. It isn’t. It’s open and honest and tells a truth we all know but choose not to think about. It takes us by the hand and points out each segment of the diorama as if to a toddler saying, look here, look here. And we see ourselves, the dysfunction in our country, the peril we have inflicted on our planet, the problems we face in our relationships. It is honest, always matter of fact, sometimes stark. By the time we reach “Being Islands” at the close of the book, the lesson is clear:
. . . we’ll own what we’ve done
Or none of it was ever ours.
Still, the wonder is that at each turn, with each awful, familiar revelation, there is such beauty. For instance, in “Forever Daylight,” which begins:
Again the sun fails to
dissolve & I cannot wash
the light from your hair
That something can have
no gods at all & still be holy. That we are finally seeing
ourselves in the full light of another’s
eyes and cannot stop flinching. Our throats gone gravel &
road salt from all this ceaseless awe.
Sibley Williams’s meditation on the human condition seems almost unconscious. It is closer to the world itself than to a representation of it. We begin with an observation of love and heartbreaking beauty, contemplate the notion of spirituality and holiness, but still find ourselves dumbstruck by the beauty—of the world, of the poem, of the book. I elide the center of this poem because it is all worthy of careful reading, and I am compelled to leave something for you.
The book develops themes of impermanence, sustainability, family, country, and of course religion, all beneath the trajectory of the poems themselves, but while reading this book, and I hope you do, we are given both sides of each of these topics. The fragment of the theme of religion I will carry with me is treatment of heaven. Stages of life are described as “temporary heaven” (“Synonyms for Paradise”), we are warned that we cannot continue to plunder the world in the line “we’re told heaven can’t splinter and seep forever” (“American Bounty”), “Apiary and Woodshop” describes the “half-finished city” of our culture as “the last untainted image of heaven.” This makes me a little nervous. In this cosmos, even heaven is gritty, real, imperfect, and fortunately unfinished. In “We Carry Wildfires,” a poem constructed on a series of “as if” statements, one dependent clause of our existence is
we were not living in one
of many discarded
rough drafts of heaven.
And while I am grateful that heaven is still under construction, the theme is perhaps best developed in the beautiful poem “Parallax,” a meditation on the illusory nature of our lives conveyed to us from a vehicle travelling:
At 60 miles per hour, the world seems
such a tender thing, the chorus
sustainable, all this darkness an
excuse to call our parents
& pledge we haven’t failed them
yet. As one does a country or a god.
a tree blurs by like someone else’s skeleton. The
uninjured by frost. From here
I can love generously, believe
what passes is just some earlier version of
Reading this book is very much like these lines. The world floods past us, leaving streaks of light and burning. It is clear we are in trouble, but it is also possible that we are heading into a better future, and if we are, I look forward to reading John Sibley Williams’s version of it.
Scale Model of a Country at Dawn reads like a cross between an earthquake and a miracle. The title might invoke reverberations of Our Town or Spoon River Anthology, but that’s not what this is. It is an important collection of beautiful poetry that really is best read as a whole. It’s not a diagnosis of where we are as a country and culture but rather a kaleidoscope of who we are and how we are beautiful and awful, interposed on the natural world as a lens the light shines through. It is also the next step in the evolution of John Sibley Williams’ voice, which is deeply steeped in American culture and poetry, but is now giving it back to us in fresh, visceral poems. I was surprised at how beautiful it is, envious, grateful, and you will be too.
About the Reviewer
Melody Wilson’s recent work appears in Briar Cliff Review, The Shore, Whale Road Review, Timberline Review, Tar River Poetry, and Rat’s Ass Review. Upcoming poetry will be in Sugar House Review, Red Rock Review, and Re Dactions. She received the 2021 Kay Snow Award for poetry, Honorable Mention for the 2021 Oberon Poetry Award, and finalist in the 2021 Patricia Dobler Poetry Award.