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Autobiography of Fever by John Sibley Williams

Autobiography of Fever by John Sibley Williams

Reviews, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013
Bedouin Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9832987-3-1
Perfect bound, 20 pp., $5
Review by Cynthia Reeser

The poems in this slim chapbook are not individually titled, but instead arranged into sections numbered I-IX; this arrangement lends a feeling of flow and continuity to the book, as if all the poems are part of one longer piece. The first poem begins with metaphor as its subject, setting the tone for the interpretation of the whole of the book:

OK, so
the metaphor is truth—
unquestionable.

As if Williams is stating, Here, Dear Reader, is the underlying theme: truth, and don’t question it. But, being discerning readers, we will call this into question and seek other themes; truth-seeking could be a red herring; it could be itself a metaphor; it could be an irony. The poem (“I”) later calls into play a technique of many truth-seekers—that of deconstructing for meaning:

This need to de-
and re-
construct
is easier
when the pieces don’t fit.

Because breaking a thing down into its parts is easier when the pieces are discernible from one another, when they are noncontiguous, ill-fitting. In “II,” Williams writes,

Leave only the truth
behind each malformed memory,
the tricks of light
that were not tricks,
the hard rain
unrepentantly silent,
the delusions
and respites from delusion

Of course, delusion has no place in truth or with those who seek it. But what of memory? Memory is imperfect, and even, one could say, deluded, easily misled by a trick of the light, a half-remembered thing where the mind fills in the gaps so the pieces fit better. But this also speaks of perception, which is vastly imperfect and largely unverifiable. Williams seems to acknowledge this fact, and to toy with it (“respites from delusion”).

But what about the title of the book—Autobiography of Fever? Is this about fever, or a fevered state? Is the mind constantly in a state of fever for all its half-remembered fallacies and delusions? “III” addresses this:

Machinelike
the fever spreads
[…]
The slow-drag of words
across it
is a strange actuality.
[…]
The hammer’s handle is sharper
than the nails
because it knows my hand.

Where is truth plainer than in physical sensation? Words—spoken, thought, written—are “a strange actuality,” especially through the imperfect filter of the mind, a naturally fevered and imperfect thing.  In “IV,” the poet questions, “Why do you claim your heart / knows its own heart?” Do we really know ourselves, our desires and motivations—can we? And then, “Why do you make up your mind / about anything?” “V,” as if to convince itself of a reality, repeats at the beginning of most of the stanzas: “This is a place.” But “VI” talks about forgetting the way “V” remains grounded, asserts the bold veracity of itself, what it posits. But here, in “VI,” the “unbearable question / is a dangerous act” where “IV” consists of a series of questions.

And this is the way the mind works, no? Constantly asserting truths and questioning them, grounding and re-grounding itself, then doubling back to question again. How can we truly know anything? What is truth? Is there such a thing, or is everything perception except the hard facts of things like nails and hammers? “VIII” harnesses what feels like truth: “I fashion myself a question mark / completing each great statement”; we are the question, truly. We are the makers of questions, the creators of abstractions in a world that is otherwise filled with hard facts: landscapes, weather, animals—these things are unquestionably there and do not ask questions or tell untruths. They simply are.

The final poem, “IX,” finally acknowledges the inability to know, albeit indirectly, through the image of the hummingbird (referenced earlier in the book as something unknown [“I have not known / the feel of hummingbird wings”]):

I am no hummingbird
and can never be one—its silent impact on things,
its inability to know the bottom

So Williams was not up to any trickery all along; the metaphor (of this book) is truth. Truth, as a metaphor. Truth, which is ultimately unknowable, like a fever in the minds of humanity, who continually seeks answers to unknowable things. Autobiography of Fever is, in essence, an autobiography of us all.

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