By Paul Merchant- poet, translator, professor, William Stafford archivist
Donald Rumsfeld was frustrated by the "old Europe," where history is made gradually rather than in haste. By contrast, John Sibley Williams has gathered in The Longest Compass a sequence of poems celebrating those mature cultures. Moving from Vienna and Prague to Turkey and Greece, these subtle, perceptive poems enact a journey into a hard-won appreciation. They move from the bewilderment of "flowers without names" and "the wilderness below the surface" to gracious acceptance in the final poem, "Foreigner": "Comfort me, ignorance. / All these tongues / detach, reunite, / roll me in their mouth."
The early poems in this collection are illuminated by love for the poet's companion, and by the end we see the same love expressed in particulars: "Imagine mastering a landscape, even a single stairway." This poet has a tender heart, and can turn a memorable phrase. "Why fret the vastness of the world?" he says in the prefatory poem, in which "the world / fits snugly an eye socket, / is the size of the last dime / in your pocket / you've been saving / to quench your thirst." These poems have traveled a long way, and come to us loaded with experience. The Longest Compass is full of fresh and novel poems that unpack old secrets.
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The Longest Compass is due out later in 2011 by Finishing Line Press.