John Sibley Williams
Michelle Boisseau Contest Finalist
At This Table We Sing with Joy, with Sorrow
– for Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota Sioux chef and cookbook author
If not for the body, let’s rafter this old table up
like once-believe-in hymns simply for the sake it.
Let’s brush the dust of dead stars from the lacy cloth.
Scrape our plates free of what our grandparents failed
to finish & our children, hopefully, will never learn
to swallow. Every night it seems the worst of us
takes over & again the table sinks out of reach.
The glass always half-empty, and we empty it.
All this amaranth scattered across the floor so we can hear
our ghosts when they enter, & when they leave us. So much
unwilded rice & unprepared longing. How we cannot stop
mending what is not yet broken & killing to prove the world
still needs us. There are still so many unlit fires in our ovens,
sometimes I forget there’s meant to be a difference between us
& them, between an unpainted & a burning cross. My daughters
carry my name like a cross over their tender little shoulders.
I no longer know what to say when asked for the truth.
Whose truth will keep the sorrow from their song?
Someone handcrafted this unvarnished oak so we might
one day take stock of one another. Let’s prop our history up
on piles of unread books, so nothing wobbles, so the legs
grow equally tall, so even that uncle they say struggled
to hurt others the way he would never be hurt can join us,
all the ugliness intact, & his wife who conformed to her container
like goat milk. Let’s sit, please, at this table between my own mixed-
race daughters & the hate you’d have had for them. Here’s some crushed
berries for your toast. A dull knife to spread it. Outside nothing has changed
of the American sycamore apart from what we’ve chosen to hang from it.
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.