Reviewed by Michael T. Young
Scale Model of a Country at Dawn
by John Sibley Williams
2022. 96 pages, ISBN: 9781930781603
Winner of the 2020 Cider Press Review Book Award, John Sibley Williams’ Scale Model of a Country at Dawn was published by Cider Press in January this year. It is a collection of poems that sing and roil in their transformations. They plunge us into immediate tensions, an anticipation of movement as say in the first line of a poem like “Winter Bazaar,” which begins, “Not-yet broken crockery.” Or the poem “Larynx” begins “All this hum must come from somewhere.” It’s the poetic equivalent of beginning in medias res. And such movement and tension are carried unbroken through poem after poem by a beautiful osculation of musical nuance and verb choice. So we have the force and frustration of its themes enacted in a line opening such as
Springs from hacked-down trees catch & choke the push mower. (Property Line, pg 18)
The hard sounds in the line both dance and clot at the same time, tripping along in both senses of the phrase. But what exactly is such interesting music revealing? At the nexus of the collection seems to be man’s spiritual nature within the never-ending onslaught of change and mortality. Prayer is the most frequently conjured idea in the collection appearing in some fashion somewhere upwards of 32 times, even once as the archaic word “orison.” In fact, it is in the poem that this old but lovely word appears that we see this nexus:
we play at goodbyeing
the world every kiss, every finger-lock,
every song, elegy, orison (Zoo Animals, pg 54)
Here we see how everything we do is a departure, a long goodbye to the world. It seems especially true of love, as the first images here are a kiss and holding hands. Williams, in this passage, appears to channel Rilke from the closing of the 8th Duino Elegy where Rilke says,
Then who has wheeled us backwards, so that we,
no matter the action, always seem to have
the stance of those about to depart? (transl. Alfred Corn)
It is an apt parallel for a collection that rides the crest of an ever-crashing mortality. The collection opens with a proem called “The Gift.” That gift, in the poem’s final lines is
Just a rough little box built from my bones
to keep the bones you’ll collect in. (The Gift, pg xiii, proem)
At first it seems a kind of ossuary. But over the course of the collection, it becomes more the human body, and specifically the body provided by parents to their children. As the title poem of the collection tells us:
If I’m passing myself down to my son, every
symptom & silence & pent-up joy, so too the rage,
this scale model of manhood. (17)
In this context the collection explores the difficult and likely impossible effort of establishing heaven on earth. What more would a parent want for their child than a world that is safe and beautiful to live in? But all those enumerated flaws: the symptoms and silences and rages also infect our children. Every effort at a better world leaves a trail of discarded utopias or, as the poem “We Carry Wildfires in Our Guts” says, “one of many discarded / rough drafts of heaven.” Although, this does not imply the stance is fatalistic. The struggle is perpetual and itself the worthy pursuit.
That we all die before we’re finished
is no excuse to abandon this worn-out
car by the side of some nameless road,
flipped over, only partially on fire.
That we should know when we see it
is not the same thing as a promise. (Synonyms for Paradise, pg 5)
Or, again, “the world is worth singing into” (“Larynx,” pg 27). In fact, the potential of an infinite possibility is more promising than the certainty of promise itself.
It doesn’t take long for water
to find an escape route or us
to lean our flames against a wall
of infinities or infinity to lose
patience & drown itself in promise (Self-Portrait as My Mother as a Cliff Face, pg 8)
Or as the poem “Appaloosa” puts it:
promises: that someday
we will wild them again, beat & break them. . .
“Anything.” Anything is better than the stasis or the repetition of the past, which may be the same thing at times. But it is in the perseverance that we find the potential for something else, something more than we’ve known before, maybe something our children or grandchildren will know. And it is all built upon the efforts of the past.
the whole town is coming together (again) to discuss rebuilding
a bridge no one remembers having ever been there (Suture, pg 58)
That we will do it all again, repetition
as worship, as eventually adding up to something; above
this one is another sky shot full of holes. (Canaveral, pg 71)
That sky shot full of holes is again one of those discarded efforts at heaven on earth. But attaining that vision is not needed for it’s the struggle which defines us, is what, in itself, is noble and worth undertaking. Through it are reoccurrences, returns that are a kind of eternity, a kind of afterlife, for we should “never/assume the disappeared cannot/return,” even though “nothing returns/in its original form” (“Object Permanence,” pg 81).
As the collection opens with a prologue, it also closes with an epilogue, with a poem titled, “Being Islands.” Implying, as it does, our isolation, the collection does not end with such a simple assertion. Much hangs in the balance: the future which is being born out of the past, our children to whom we make promises that can’t be kept because there are more factors than we can control. It is what we call “chance.” But in the noble struggle to keep building that bridge, that “repetition as worship,” occasionally those efforts align with those forces of chance and something more comes of it.
the promises our children deserve
dissolve on our tongues like salt
or poison or both? Depending
on the stars’ alignment, tonight
we’ll own what we’ve done
or none of it was ever ours.
Scale Model of a Country at Dawn is an incantation of fluctuating tides and currents, it is an alchemy of stars, horses, ghosts, salt, dreams, and especially prayers. It is an ebb and flow of beautiful lyric poems that carry us over the shifting ground upon which we build our lives, sustaining by its music, but never pretending to a security that no one can promise. It’s a collection that recommends itself in the difficult balance of its honesty and beauty.
About the reviewer: Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. His previous collections are The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award. His poetry has been featured on Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac. His essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in numerous journals including The Smart Set, Gargoyle Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Rattle, Vox Populi, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.