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John Sibley Williams

Like many of my poems, “act of contrition” is a weaving of various external inspirations and deeply personal themes. Flipping through an extensive Edward Hopper book, I began taking notes on the incompletenesses and absences in the images. I found great truths in the lack of concrete truths within them. From there, I laced elements of history (both cultural and familial) and asked myself how my own older, white family would have felt about my wife’s Japanese ancestry, especially her grandmother who was raised in wartime internment camps. In doing so, I hoped to spark a conversation about how privilege is handed down and how we can still construct bridges over the many arid riverbeds of our country’s ugly cultural histories.

Act of contrition

act of contrition

when the winds shift / the dying

drifts west / over unfinished tracks


hills without names / bodies without

names / tangles of / ill-fitting histories


all the wildness / just outside Hopper’s

gorgeously whitesacaped worlds of /


lighthouse & café & sunlit / american

detachment / my great-grandfather &


what he’d do if he ever met my wife’s

/ walled up in one after another / intern-


ment camp / his language a wick / a ritual

/ vigil / the unsettlement of birds he sketched


on scraps from a distant / memory of sky /

how destiny manifests differently for some /


how when i rub both photos together / now / the same

spark / same burn / same collapsed bridge trying


so damn hard to span / the same river my children

wash themselves in / in rawer times i’d unbreak


this bread / rifle through these glossy images

of loss / of birdlessness / & burn barrel it all


night / until the night too felt / exorcised / free

to hurt / & be hurt / but the wind tonight / hurts


us just right / the hills are not bodies / & everything

has a name / a language / two shores &  a river


we bridgelessly feel our way across / toward yes

John Sibley Williams is the author of nine poetry collections, including Scale Model of a Country at Dawn (Cider Press Review Poetry Award), The Drowning House (Elixir Press Poetry Award), As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press), and Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize).). His book Sky Burial: New & Selected Poems is forthcoming in translated form by the Portuguese press do lado esquerdo. A twenty-seven-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and founder of the Caesura Poetry Workshop series. Previous publishing credits include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Verse Daily, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and TriQuarterly.

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