March 31, 2017 at 12:35 pm

Lit Fest | The Many Voices of Poet Tom Sleigh

The 2017 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Tom Sleigh for a reading in Walter Hall on Thursday, April 6, at 8:30 p.m., and a lecture Friday, April 7, at 11 a.m. in Alden Library.

By Angie Mazakis 
Graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing: Poetry

As a child, Tom Sleigh used to fall asleep next to his twin brother in his family’s green Plymouth every night right as the movie began at the drive-in theater that his parents ran in a small town in Texas. With his mother tending to the snack bar, and his father operating the projector, “the voices coming through the car speakers were like the voices in my dreams, the two intermingling to make a kind of poetry: especially since I thought the voices in dreams were the voices of dead people come to tell you things that you were forbidden to hear during the day.”

Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh

Sleigh revealed this evocative detail, this poetic origin story, in an interview with AGNI, where he also cited his influences, including, “Browning for his technique; Wallace Stevens for a certain quality of gravitas; what Keats feels near his death, when he said he was living a sort of posthumous existence; Philip Larkin for his sense of extremity; Pound for his fluidity of conception and hardness of execution; Baudelaire for his music and intense scrutiny and affection for street life; and Bishop and Lowell for their immersion in the physical world.” In Sleigh’s eight dazzling books, which include collections that have won the John Updike Award and the Kingsley Tufts Award, these influences shin like light on a screen, and we hear the voices of the past clearly in what feels like an original artform. It’s that ability to mine tradition while creating something new that has led to Sleigh’s publications in all the big venues: The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, The Best of the Best American Poetry, The Best American Poetry, and The Best American Travel Writing. He has also written a book of essays, entitled, Interview with a Ghost and a translation of Euripides’ Herakles. His work often takes readers to places they’ve never visited, both to literal locales and regions Sleigh artfully crafts through unexpected associations. His writing occupies familiar, yet oblique territory, and it truly does feel like the sound of something half-recognized emerging from a screen as one drifts toward sleep. Except that instead of lulling us, Tom Sleigh’s work wakes us up.

Though a significant portion of his most recent book, Station Zed, is devoted to events he witnessed as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa, where he covered the lives of Palestinian and Somali refugees, many of the poems are about life in America, and it’s his mixing that commands our attention. One such poem, “Songs for the Cold War,” juxtaposes childhood activities with news of The Cold War and the figure of Christ writing in the sand. In “Detectives,” two detectives haunt a speaker’s dream where he’s allegedly betrayed a friend. In “‘Let Thanks Be Given to the Raven as Is Its Due’,” Sleigh weaves a story about the “junkies” in the speaker’s aunt’s apartment complex with a tale of a raven in Rome who “greeted the Senators by name.” In another poem, about the speaker and his twin brother, the speaker’s hit of heroin fuses the two counterparts into one.

Of the disparity between the war poems in Station Zed and these other poems, Sleigh, in a Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat, maintains, “I’m not at all worried about having a ‘signature’ style, or finding my voice, or sounding like ‘Tom Sleigh.’ That will happen of its own accord. So when I put a book together, I like to think of it as polyvocal: that is, there are many different voices and styles and tones that inhabit the poems, and my job is to represent those various ways of speaking with as much fidelity as I can.” These multiple voices and styles are particularly evident in the poems set in America, which cover diverse characters and perspectives expertly, and in a way that makes it difficult to define a Sleigh poem; we simply recognize the visceral effectiveness of the language.

Most impressive in Sleigh’s poetry are his vivid images with which he creates distinct, almost mystical places as he simultaneously illuminates the ordinary. In the poem, “Songs for the End of the World,” he does this elegantly, using the verbiage of weather and music to call attention, rhythmically, to the drumbeat of misfortune:

a nervous condition traces itself

in lightning in the clouds,

a little requiem rattles among Coke cans

and old vegetable tins

and shifts into a minor key

blowing through the dying ailanthus,

grieving to the beat beginning to pour down

percussive as a run

on a nomad’s flute of bone

while a car engine dangling from a hoist and chain

sways in a translucent gown of rain.

The lines pile on themselves, feeling gritty-mythical, old and new, as if Sleigh is engaged in creating a new American idiom.

The long poem “Homage to Basho,” which is isolated in its own section in the book, is written in a Japanese form called haibun, and is notable for the same type of blending. The poem begins by preparing the reader for the account that follows: “What I have to say about my trip meanders the way the Tigris and Euphrates meander, and like those rivers in flood, is sometimes murky in intention, balked in at its conclusions, and flows where it has to flow.” This preamble sets the tone for the poem, which brings us to Iraq and into precarious situations with the speaker. Amidst the danger, the poem is ornamented with haiku-like images such as this: “my cell phone’s camera kept making my passport face / explode with little yellow stars . . . ” Sleigh contextualizes the incidents in the poem by including details from the Babylonian flood myth as well, and he inserts a fragment he translated into English after he encountered it on a cuneiform tablet in the Louvre. That poem originates from a Sumerian spell and includes foreboding shadows of desolation: “May the great barred gate / of blackest night again swing shut / on silent hinges.”

Intermingled with all this, Sleigh gives us a student’s sobering account of waiting out the bombs from the Iraq war: “We sat in our house with the lights off. The bombs went on for a long time, and when they stopped, all of us were so tired we went to sleep.” On the subject of war, Sleigh explained in an AGNI interview, “I think the abstraction of war to a civilian population versus the physical terror and elation it inspires in combatants, and the way those two things get registered by a culture, exaggerated, erased, glorified, demonized, is crucial in knowing exactly what a culture has learned to value.” Sleigh writes about conflict in a way that illuminates both its abstractions and its materiel, allowing readers to examine the cultural context—the fog and the stuff of war—out of which their responses arise.

Throughout Station Zed, a book in which the stakes are large and the scope larger, it is difficult not to notice biblical imagery, which heightens the poems’ timeless yet of-the-moment quality. In a poem called “From the Ass’s Mouth: A Theory of the Leisure Class” about the speaker performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a child, scriptural text about heaven appears. In another poem, a cathedral is being built around the speaker’s house, and Sleigh uses tenets of Catholicism to explore the idea of temporality. The speaker’s observation of the stark material images around him make him consider whether “unbuilding / a cathedral was the work / that really mattered,” not demolishing it: “but taking it apart stone / by stone until all // that’s left is the cathedral’s / outline coming in and out of limbo / in the winter sun.”

Later, the poem alludes to Thomas: “A builder and a doubter. Patron saint of all believers / in what’s really there every time you look…” to examine the ambiguity between the real and the ephemeral. And several poems allude to the Christ figure. Sleigh revealed to The Rumpus that his interest in these images is a secular one: “I have almost no feeling for a certain kind of religious piety, no matter what tradition it comes from . . . I guess I’m interested in secularizing the mysteries of death, redemption, and resurrection.” That secularization seems to point to an examination of a kind of hope that is grounded in the material world. Drawn to redemption, though, his focus remains on the loss of the finite, the destruction of a cathedral, the pain of a battle. While his poems charm us into looking upward and inward, they force us to witness what’s happening now, in our own unsacred terrain.

A piece of advice that Sleigh has for young poets is to “Think of yourself as a language sponge, something like Augustine’s conception of God’s omnipresence, soaking in every form of contemporary speech, from rap to advertising to government double talk. But also cultivate your vertical sense of the language, its historical density, the way each word has its own separate fate.” Though he explores the latitude of language to its furthest ends and remains conversant in many poetic registers, Tom Sleigh continues to sound like himself and no one else: haunted and haunting, critical and celebratory. And it isn’t difficult to see in his work that kid in Texas letting B movies bring him from wakefulness to slumber. He’s still surrounded by dreamy voices, but he locates them before they drift away, and he places them in fascinating conversation with one another. We can’t help but listen.

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