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Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh was born in Mount Pleasant, Texas. He attended the California Institute of the Arts and Evergreen State College, and earned an MA from Johns Hopkins University.

Sleigh is the author of several books of poetry, including House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018); Station Zed (Graywolf Press, 2015); Army Cats (Graywolf Press, 2011), winner of the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Space Walk (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award; and Far Side of the Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), winner of an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

He has also published a translation of Euripides's Herakles and two books of essays, The Land between Two Rivers: Poetry in an Age of Refugees (Graywolf Press, 2018) and Interview with a Ghost (Graywolf Press, 2006).

About Sleigh's work, the poet Philip Levine wrote in Ploughshares: "Sleigh's reviewers use words such as 'adept,' 'elegant,' and 'classical.' Reading his new book, I find all those terms beside the point, even though not one is inaccurate. I am struck by the human dramas that are enacted in these poems, the deep encounters that often shatter the participants and occasionally restore them. What delights me most is seeing a poet of his accomplishments and his large and well-earned reputation suddenly veer into a new arena of both our daily and our mythical lives. For the writer, such daring may be its own reward; for the reader, it is thrilling to overhear a writer pushing into greatness."

Seamus Heaney has said of Sleigh’s poems: "Tom Sleigh’s poetry is hard-earned and well founded. I great admire the way it refuses to cut emotional corners and yet achieves a sense of lyric absolution."

Sleigh has also worked as a journalist in Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Kenya, Iraq, and Libya. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, an Individual Writer's Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, and fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among many others. He is a Distinguished Professor in the MFA program at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn.



Selected Bibliography

Poetry
House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018)
Station Zed (Graywolf Press, 2015)
Army Cats (Graywolf Press, 2011)
Space Walk (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
Far Side of the Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
The Dreamhouse (University of Chicago Press, 1999)
The Chain (University of Chicago Press, 1996)
Waking (University of Chicago Press, 1990)
After One (Houghton Mifflin, 1983)

Prose
The Land between Two Rivers: Poetry in an Age of Refugees (Graywolf Press, 2018)
Interview With a Ghost (Graywolf Press, 2006)

Translation
Herakles by Euripides (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Tom Sleigh
Photo Credit: Annette Hornischer

By This Poet

15

Space Station

(Note: a space station generates gravity by revolving one way and then another. When it reverses direction to revolve the other way, there are several moments when gravity is suspended.)

My mother and I and the dog were floating
Weightless in the kitchen. Silverware
Hovered above the table. Napkins drifted
Just below the ceiling. The dead who had been crushed
By gravity were free to move about the room,
To take their place at supper, lift a fork, knife, spoon—
A spoon, knife, fork that, outside this moment's weightlessness,
Would have been immovable as mountains.

My mother and I and the dog were orbiting
In the void that follows after happiness
Of an intimate gesture: Her hand stroking the dog's head
And the dog looking up, expectant, into her eyes:
The beast gaze so direct and alienly concerned
To have its stare returned; the human gaze
That forgets, for a moment, that it sees
What it's seeing and simply, fervently, sees...

But only for a moment. Only for a moment were my mother
And the dog looking at each other not mother
Or dog but that look—I couldn't help but think,
If only I were a dog, or Mother was,
Then that intimate gesture, this happiness passing
Could last forever...such a vain, hopeless wish
I was wishing; I knew it and didn't know it
Just as my mother knew she was my mother

And didn't...and as for the dog, her large black pupils,
Fixed on my mother's faintly smiling face,
Seemed to contain a drop of the void
We were all suspended in; though only a dog
Who chews a ragged rawhide chew toy shaped
Into a bone, femur or cannonbone
Of the heavy body that we no longer labored
To lift against the miles-deep air pressing

Us to our chairs. The dog pricked her ears,
Sensing a dead one approaching. Crossing the kitchen,
My father was moving with the clumsy gestures
Of a man in a space suit—the strangeness of death
Moving among the living—though the world
Was floating with a lightness that made us
Feel we were phantoms: I don't know
If my mother saw him—he didn't look at her

When he too put his hand on the dog's head
And the dog turned its eyes from her stare to his...
And then the moment on its axis reversed,
The kitchen spun us the other way round
And pressed heavy hands down on our shoulders
So that my father sank into the carpet,
My mother rested her chin on her hand
And let her other hand slide off the dog's head,

Her knuckles bent in a kind of torment
Of moonscape erosion, ridging up into
Peaks giving way to seamed plains
With names like The Sea of Tranquility
—Though nothing but a metaphor for how
I saw her hand, her empty, still strong hand
Dangling all alone in the infinite space
Between the carpet and the neon-lit ceiling.

Oracle

Because the burn's unstable, burning too hot
in the liquid hydrogen suction line
and so causing vortices in the rocket fuel 

flaming hotter and hotter as the "big boy"
blasts off, crawling painfully slowly 
up the blank sky, then, when he blinks 

exploding white hot against his wincing
retina, the fireball's corona searing 
in his brain, he drives with wife and sons

the twisting road at dawn to help with the Saturday
test his division's working on: the crowd 
of engineers surrounding a pit dug in snow 

seeming talky, joky men for 6 a.m., masking 
their tension, hoping the booster rocket's
solid fuel will burn more evenly than the liquid

and keep the company from layoffs rumored
during recess, though pride in making
chemicals do just what they're calculated to

also keys them up as they lounge behind 
pink caution tape sagging inertly 
in the morning calm: in the back seat, I kick 

my twin brother's shin, bored at 6:10 a.m. 
until Dad turns to us and says, in a neutral tone, 
Stop it, stop it now, and we stop and watch: 

a plaque of heat, a roar like a diesel blasting
in your ear, heatwaves ricocheting off gray mist
melting backward into dawn, shockwaves rippling 

to grip the car and shake us gently, flame 
dimly seen like flame inside the brain confused 
by a father who promises pancakes after, 

who's visibly elated to see the blast shoot 
arabesques of mud and grit fountaining up 
from the snow-fringed hole mottling to black slag 

fired to ruts and cracks like a parched streambed. 
Deliriously sleepy, what were those flames doing 
mixed up with blueberry pancakes, imaginings of honey 

dripping and strawberry syrup or waffles, 
maybe, corrugated like that earth, or a stack 
of half-dollars drenched and sticky...? 

My father's gentle smile and nodding head—
gone ten years, and still I see him climbing 
slick concrete steps as if emerging from our next door

neighbor's bomb shelter, his long-chilled shade 
feeling sunlight on backs of hands, warmth on cheeks,
the brightness making eyes blink and blink...

so like his expression when a friend came 
to say goodbye to him shrunken inside 
himself as into a miles-deep bunker...

and then he smiled, his white goatee 
flexing, his parched lips cracked but welcoming 
as he took that friend's hand and held it, held it 

and pressed it to his cheek... The scales, weighing 
one man's death and his son's grief against 
a city's char and flare, blast-furnace heat melting 

to slag whatever is there, then not there—
doesn't seesaw to a balance, but keeps shifting,
shifting...nor does it suffice to make simple

correspondences between bunkers and one man's 
isolation inside his death, a death 
he died at home and chose...at least insofar 

as death allows anyone a choice, for what
can you say to someone who's father or mother
crossing the street at random, or running 

for cover finds the air sucked out 
of them in a vacuum of fire calibrated
in silence in a man's brain like my father's

—the numbers calculated inside the engineer's 
imagination become a shadowy gesture as in Leonardo's 
drawing of a mortar I once showed my father 

and that we admired for its precision, shot raining 
down over fortress walls in spray softly pattering,
hailing down shrapnel like the fountain of Trevi

perfectly uniform, lulling to the ear and eye
until it takes shape in the unforgiving
three dimensional, as when the fragile, 

antagonized, antagonistic human face
begins to slacken into death as in my own 
father's face, a truly gentle man except 

for his work which was conducted gently too—
since "technicals" like him were too shy for sales 
or management, and what angers he may have had 

seemed to be turned inward against judging
others so the noise inside his head was quieter
than most and made him, to those who knew him well,

not many, but by what they told me after he died,
the least judgemental person 
they'd ever known—who, at his almost next to last 

breath, uncomplaining, said to his son's 
straining, over-eager solicitation, 
—Is there something you need, anything?

—That picture—straighten it... his face smoothing 
to a slate onto which light scribbles what? a dark joke,
an elegant equation, a garbled oracle?

Blueprint

I had a blueprint
of history
in my head —

it was a history of the martyrs
of love, the fools
of tyrants, the tyrants
themselves weeping
at the fate of their own soldiers —

a sentimental blueprint,
lacking depth —
a ruled axis X and Y
whose illusions
were bearable . . .
then unbearable . . .

In that blueprint, I wanted to speak
in a language
utterly other, in words
that mimicked
how one of Homer's warriors
plunges through breastplate
a spear past
breastbone, the spearpoint searching
through the chest
like a ray of light searching
a darkened room
for the soul
unhoused, infantile,
raging —
but my figure of speech,
my "ray of light" —
it was really a spearpoint
piercing the lung
of great-hearted Z
who feels death loosen
his knees, the menos
in his thumos
flying out of him —

the fate of his own soul
to confront me
beyond the frame:

no room, no X, no Y, no "ray of light,"
no menos, no thumos, no Z —

only sketched-in plane
after plane after plane
cantilevering upward and forever throughout space.

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