In the title poem of this latest from Kingsley Tufts Award winner Sleigh (Space Walk), readers experience “Cat invasion of the mind. Cat tribes/ running wild.” These aren’t cute kitties, though, but “great six-toed brutes” cavorting in the shadow of army tanks. Tanks, snipers, bombings, bloodshed, “mankilling time”—they all feature prominently inPart 1 of this collection, carefully detailed in blunt-spoken and sometimes even prosy fashion, with no lyric overload. It’s as if Sleigh were acting as a reporter, describing violence in Iraq and Beirut and Cana, where Jesus once turned water to wine; one poem is even titled “Reporter.” In Part 2, death gets broader and deeper—there it is, in a sweaty nightclub-like setting, “leaning over/ secretly spitting in everybody’s drink”—and the writing gets more acrid, too. Part 3 ratchets up the energy, giving a feeling of life run riot, “our bodies/ longing to be held and fucked into oblivion.” What better way to drown out our bitter end? VERDICT As he moves with masterly control from section to section, style to style, yet pulling along a constant narrative thread, Sleigh shows just how accomplished he is. Most devotees of contemporary poetry should try.
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Tom Sleigh, Anthropologist
by MICAH TOWERY
First things, first. Full disclosure: Tom Sleigh was my teacher and thesis advisor at Hunter College. Fuller disclosure: my admiration for Tom’s poetry outweighs any personal loyalty to Tom (though I have that too).
* * *
Tom Sleigh’s method is art, but his end is anthropological. His vision is fully humane, an attempt to catalogue people, events, and his own place among them. Because of this, one might be surprised that this collection begins with a three part series of poems that picture a lively army scene populated by anthropomorphized cats. In this opening poem, readers find the sheer pleasure of reading Sleigh’s poetry. His idiom is musical, yet speechly:
Over by the cemetery next to the CP
you could see them in wild catmint going crazy:
I watched them roll and wriggle, paw it, lick it,
chew it, leap about, pink tongues stuck out, drooling.
Cats in the tanks’ squat shadows lounging
Or sleeping curled up under gun turrets.
Hundreds of them sniffing or licking
long hind legs stuck in the air…
The sounds ring back and forth along these lines, resonating with one another in a way that feels formal yet unrestricted: the various ringing sounds in these two stanzas are the closest poetry come to creating to a musical chord–the EEs, the EDs/ETs/ITs, the INGs–all rising and falling go back and forth like a metronome. There’s even some subtle bits of chiasmus (“cURled Up under gUn tURrets”). All this in the first two stanzas of the book.
I’m tempted to reproduce the whole poem, if only because its self-evident mastery could complete this review (If you want, you can find the rest of the poem here.
There is one question, however, that I have about this poem: why the cats? Does Sleigh betray his “calling” as a poetic anthropologist? Let me answer this question by means of another discussion: formality.
Sleigh’s poetry is often noted for its “classical” nature. I take this in two ways: first, Sleigh’s poems are drenched in classical allusion; second–and I think this is more interesting–there is a formality that extends beyond formalism in Sleigh’s writing. I am not totally sure how to express what I mean, but I think Allen Grossman gets at it when he says “all speaking is action which has a history” (from The Sighted Singer). What we call “formal” is an awareness of that history transferred by various ways in the writing: sometimes this comes as a poetic form, sometimes as an awareness of meter and sound a sort of imitation of forebearers (while, nonetheless, giving it a particular, perhaps unique, voicing). To me, this quality provides a very loose scale by which I can classify writers. There are some writers whose writing is more aware of this “formality” and there are some writers whose poetry seems to have very little concern for it, though I think we all participate in it, whether we like it or not.
Sleigh’s relationship to formality is not that of a purist who exalts the “tradition” as the way of perfection. I would argue that Sleigh’s formality plays two roles in his poetry. First, it lets him put down one of the balls a poet juggles in the act of writing (and editing). For example, a poet who is translating is free from concern about the content of the poem–that is, the images, ideas, etc. already exist within the original poem, and content-wise, the poet is not concerned with generating “new” content. Put simply: the question of “what do I say next” is already answered while translating. Sleigh’s formality is often musical: in this sense, he does not have to ask himself, “what sound comes next” because the dictates of formality can answer that question for him. Now–Sleigh plays with this, of course, as is evident from the above selection: some lines have end-rhyme, some don’t; some lines are rhymed couplets, others are an ABAC scheme. Sleigh’s formal play is made possible by the form, in that we might not recognize his poetic choice otherwise. Inasmuch as we note Tom Sleigh’s writing to be “classical” (i.e., to openly have a relationship with formality), we come more to see Tom’s artistic ego/daimon/whatever at work.
The second way that Sleigh uses formality is as a way to interrogate his writing. When writing with formal intentions, one makes a choice: do I sacrifice this word/line/idea for the sake of the form? Inevitably there comes the choice to follow, break, or bend the demands of formality. This connects with the first point. Sleigh’s play with formality creates a rich musical texture, and it also is capable of revealing the actions of a poet in creating the work. Thus we see that Sleigh’s anthropology cuts both ways. Not only is he “documenting” others, he is documenting himself. Formality, in this case, allows Sleigh to achieve a reflexivity and self-awareness without the cloying injections that deliberately remind the reader of the existence of the poet. A dramatic mask need not be about the falseness of an actor; indeed, its presence can create a duality that highlights the actor.
So we can say that Sleigh’s role as an anthropologist is still in effect because he is documenting his own place as a writer among his poetic subjects.
But still, cats? It seems perhaps that Sleigh abandons his anthropological post with this one…let’s see.
After introducing an orgiastic, “big pregnant / female” cat who vamps in front of the horny (“cat fuck yowl” is one of the most memorable lines from the whole book) army cats, Sleigh instructs us to
Picture her with gold hoop earrings
and punked-out nose ring like the cat goddess Bast,
bronze kittens at her feet, the crowd drinking wildly,
women lifting up their skirts as she floats down
the Nile, a sistrum jangling in her paw.
Then come back out of it and sniff
her ointments, Lady of Flame, Eye of Ra.
It’s one of the many clever leaps in this poem series: we are unknowingly drawn into the poem; we become part of the undeniably enjoyable act of gawking at the exotic (oriental?). It’s a bit like T.S. Eliot directing a scene from Indiana Jones (or Lucas/Spielberg directing Cats). The poem also sets the stage for the rest of the book. We remember that the Middle East has its own history of empire, a classical age before Islam, before Christianity, when the division between East and West was more porous.
Follow the poem to its end. As the series continues, the poems become decidedly less cat-oriented. By the end of Part III, the cats are no longer anthropomorphized; the “I” (a decidedly different one) re-enters the poem after a long absence:
And then I remember the ancient archers
frozen between reverence and necessity–
who stare down the enemy, barbarians
as it’s told, who nailed sacred cats to their shields,
knowing their foes outraged in their piety
would throw down their bows and wail like kittens.
Readers of Tom Sleigh’s essay “Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry” (Yes, Eric Kocher, I still have your copy of Interview with a Ghost that you loaned to me…I will give it back some day…maybe…) should recognize in Sleigh’s Protean subjects something he spoke about in that essay:
Dissonance of feeling, the disrelation of “I” to any settled viewpoint, which is a way of being that seems foreclosed to the “mind at rest,” is a quality in poetry that over the years I’ve come to prize more and more….the difficulty of pinning down Ashbery in his poems as anything other than the medium of language is one reason why he is such a bad model for other poets interested in the slippery relations of “I” to “the tale of the tribe.” The positing of a unitary identity is crucial to a process of questioning that identity. Ashbery’s associative movement is too strictly linear in what it is obliged to leave out: the sense that we are getting “the real John Ashbery,” illusory and as much an effect of language as that may be, is simply not one of the formal burdens that Ashbery’s poems are willing to take up.
And the winner [of who disrelates most to a stable subject] is: Robert Lowell. Robert Lowell again?….What is [Life Studies] but a gallery of family portraits in which the faces, at first highly defined, by degrees begin to blend together into the composite face of a crucial cultural and historical moment in Cold War American Life?
I apologize for chopping that passage up so badly (I highly recommend reading it–if only to read one of the most interesting justifications of Anne Bradstreet as a great modern poet you’ll ever see). The picture of Lowell in Ashbery’s relief is fundamental to seeing how Sleigh sees selves, subjects, characters, I’s, You’s, etc. working in poetry. The self-not-as-self in Ashbery can become gimmicky at times because it’s what you expect. The self-not-as-self in Lowell, however, is almost unnoticeable at first. The more you sit with the poem, however, the more the disconnects and fractures begin to show. Lowell’s depiction is more prized to Sleigh because it exists as part of a deeper texture, and is thus more capable of exploring the problematic aspects of self-hood.
I’ve said all that to say this: Sleigh’s poem “Army Cats” displays the same shifting: first we are only readers, now we are gawkers; first the cats are human like, now the cats have become cats. Most noticeably, the I which established perspective among the army cats in the beginning has been drawn out and now ponders them, almost as objects in a history book. Commands come out of nowhere, completely new voices enter and leave the poem–yet it all flows unnoticed in the being of the poem. You only pin it down when you go back and objectify the poem, pick it apart and analyze it.
Combine the formality I spoke about earlier with the shifting self and one can see that Tom Sleigh is writing, fundamentally, about the same unstable self as Ashbery and others. Yet he does them one better, I believe: Sleigh uses formality to interrogate itself. Rather than creating new ways to enter the poem in order to critique the old ways, Sleigh expands the use of the “old ways,” showing that such formality is actually robust enough to transcend itself in a way.
If it is true that the highest art hides its artifice, then Sleigh is clearly a master; yet he even does not let us as readers fall prey to this dictum. Careful readers see that he never hides his artifice, but carefully documents it. Thus, we see that in using these anthropomorphized cats, Sleigh is still in the business of anthropology: it’s an anthropology of himself and of us as readers.
There’s also a connection between these shifting selves and the way that Sleigh weaves allusion and history into his poetry. “Beirut Tank”–a poem that matches Bishop for craftedness–creates a textured, multi-layered subject, which is the result of other voices and histories blending together:
Staring up into the tank’s belly
lit by a bare bulb hanging down
off the exhaust, a mechanic’s hands are up
inside the dark metallic innards doing something
that looks personal, private. The tank is nothing
like the ones the ones the Americans deploy.
Those have uranium piercing shells that could melt
right through this tank’s armor and set off
the ammo box: nothing can withstand the American tanks.
What begins as the voice of an observer, slowly becomes the voice of the mechanic. Perhaps the speaker is just repeating what they’ve heard. Or perhaps they are actually becoming the mechanic in a way. This shift happens more noticeably in these lines:
The mechanic on his back in the dirt,
cursing in Arabic, sounds like he’s cursing
in a good-natured way: who was the fucking moron
who did the maintenance on this thing?
This tank, this tank, he should push it off
a cliff into the sea to bob for
half an hour before sinking under the Pigeon Rocks
where all the lovers gather in the shadows
near that little bar, lit by a generator, that serves Arak
and warm beer to soldiers hanging out on the Corniche:
mainly conscripts from down south, whose orange groves
rot because nobody can pick the oranges: try to pick
an orange and a cluster bomb lodged in leaves
comes tumbling into your basket. What weight
did this cocksucker use, anyway? And this engine,
it’s gonna blow.
Who knows how many possible voices are blending together to create the speaker of this poem? Here the speaker is really a series of selves who are speaking in a semi-narrative arc.
I’ve spent a great deal of time on the first two poems of this collection. There are, of course, many things to say about the rest, but the first two poems–for me–set the tone, ambitions, and goals for the rest of the work. In “Army Cats” we must confront our own selves and ask what is the meaning of the way we are drawn in; the answer is not always comfortable. In “Beirut Tank,” Sleigh’s careful attention to stories and details and his ability to weave in narratives testifies to his effort and observational powers.
Other poems to pay attention to on your own reading are “The Games,” “The Spell,” “The Chosen One,” “Money,” “On First Avenue and Sixth Street,” and “Mingus Reborn as Mingus.”
A Poet’s Meditation on Force
by David Wojahn
January 31, 2013
In Army Cats, American poet Tom Sleigh takes on the topic of the 2007 Lebanese Civil War not as an excuse for wanton journalistic rubbernecking, but as a catalyst for a series of troubled meditations on the nature of “force” within contemporary culture. Let me explain what I mean by force.
To do so requires a look back at the groundbreaking work of philosopher and activist Simone Weil.
Writing in the first year of World War II, in an effort to show that Hitler’s rise to power was not the anomaly that other intellectuals claimed it to be, Weil composed one of the most famous meditations on violence ever written, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.”
Early in the essay, Weil defines what she means by “force”: To define force—it is that x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to its limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all. This is the spectacle The Iliad never wearies of showing us.
Warfare for Weil is not a continuation of politics by other means but a grimly relentless process of dehumanization, unchanged since the time of Homer. Anyone who sees it otherwise is dismissed by the author as a “dreamer.” Weil does not care to offer a nuanced mediation on the role of violence in human nature, and she surely would not view technological progress as having done anything to change the state of things. (What better exemplifies Weil’s notion of force than an American drone—piloted many thousands of miles away by a twenty-two-year-old in California—unleashing its missiles on an al-Qaida safe house outside Karachi?)
Weil scholars often cite "The iliad or the Poem of Force" as prefiguring the turn toward mysticism and spirituality that characterized her late work, but the basic stance of the essay is one of simple astonishment and disgust at the relentless magnitude of the human capacity for violence. In other words, Weil writes in the tradition of the Jeremiad rather than that of the epic. So too does Tom Sleigh in this new collection of poems. Weil and Sleigh both also remind us that astonishment and disgust can be powerful rhetorical tools when artfully employed.
The initiating subject matter of Army Cats, Sleigh's seventh book, is the most recent of a seemingly endless series of internecine conflicts that have plagued Lebanon for much of the last halfcentury. Working as a journalist based in Beirut during the summer of 2007, Sleigh was able to witness the escalation of the turmoil firsthand, yet the poems of Army Cats do not focus on the war's political implications. We do not hear of Hezbollah's attempts to unseat the elected government of the country, or of the bloody siege of Nahr al-Bahred Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli; we are instead offered a series of portraits and snapshots, pictures of the war's human cost rendered in sometimes excruciatingly intense close-ups. Here is
the closing of a poem entitled "Refuge":
... her face twisted up
by scars is a face of scars that's only hers
her face that I look at as she smiles first
indulgently, then back at herself as child
beseechingly asking mom for approval.
The woman she will be tells her that she's pretty
such a pretty girl, and the child she is
as the mother knows it too, she nods her head
and for that moment the three of them agree.
This is harrowing description; the use of repetition, enjambment, nearrhyme, and (especially) the bravura syntax of the opening sentence combine to an effect of sorrowful claustrophobia. We can no more stop looking at the girl's disfigured face than the speaker can. And the tension of the poem is only released via the grim irony of the speaker speculating upon the girl's future- "the woman that she will be tells her that she's pretty." In another poem, a military mechanic attempts an emergency repair of a decrepit French tank, "nothing /like the ones the Americans deploy." Here is the concluding passage:
...He runs two fingers
up and down it, then feels where rust,
mixed into an oily paste, shines like bloody flux
he gently dips his fingers in, sniffs and tastes.
Clanging back his tapping on the armor plate,
as he listens to her talking on his back in the dirt, screwing in
the spare parts, the tank says what tanks always say,
Fix me, oil me, grease me, make itfit,
confirming what he knows about the French.
As with "Refugee," there's a visceral and kinetic immediacy to this passage that is typical of Sleigh's work. Even more notable, however, is the unsettling unsettling personification of the closing lines; the tank and the mechanic are frozen in a kind of erotic embrace; the scene is part Ovid's Metamorphosis, part Robocop, and altogether strange, a startlingly imaginative example of the process of Force turning individuals into "things."
The poems set in Lebanon, which are found mainly in the first section of Army Cats, focus on the psychological effects of warfare on ordinary individuals and recall the work of America's great poetic chronicler of such trauma, Randall Jarrell. But Sleigh eschews Jarrell's sentimentality for an almost pitiless objectivity. And Sleigh well knows that the desire for objectivity also holds its dangers-not least because it can easily devolve into a stance of mere gratuitousness. As the speaker of a monologue entitled "Reporter" confesses: "I shrink myself /to nothing just to feel history and my nothing/come together in the most beautiful fucking / you can't quite feel." There is a sadly long tradition ofAmerican writers visiting war zones in search of content: one thinks of Stephen Crane in the Spanish-American War, of Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War, and more recently-in the 1980s-of author Joan Didion's and poet Carolyn Forche's dispatches from the civil war in El Salvador. Sleigh surely follows in this tradition, but differs from his predecessors insofar as he is much more concerned with
matters of personal and aesthetic accountability.
Violence is of course seen as one of force's handmaidens, but so too is technology: the volume's longest and most risky piece is a four-page prose poem describing a YouTube video-the
"sound quality and the resolution are poor" -purporting to record the execution of Saddam Hussein. Sleigh goes on to imagine that the cell phone recording this event is held by none other than William Shakespeare, and develops this outlandish
conceit with considerable brio. The tone is more earnest than comic. When the video fails to capture the spectacle of Saddam's body dangling from gallows, Shakespeare-the consummate professional-sees an aesthetic opportunity:
Later, after viewing the video back in
his room, Shakespeare concludes that
the overall effect is crude, but the scene
builds well, the rhetoric carries the day,
and that the blackout is an excellent device-
more effective, in the end, than
the actual showing of the body. After
all, everybody has seen hundreds upon
hundreds of corpses, if not in real life,
then on TV, at the movies, in books, .
in plays, No, a corpse doesn't have the
dramatic force it used to have ... and
he remembers back to when he was a
boy working as a butcher, exercising
his father's trade, that when he killed
a calf he would do it in high style, and
make a speech. And everyone would
laugh, the calf would be skinned out,
the meat salted - and the next one
would stumble up, be tied down, and
made ready for the knife.
As the collection goes on, and the subject of Lebanon is replaced by more various concerns, the sort of grotesque anachronism and outlandish juxtapositions found in the Saddam/ Shakespeare poem become a prevailing motif. Sleigh's range of reference and allusion has always been formidable, and the poems of Army Cats are no exception: there are references to gladiatorial contests, to writers such as Primo Levi and Robert Graves, to a Russian space suit set adrift from the International Space Station (stuffed with old clothes and containing a radio transmitter), to the Greek magical papyri, to rock eccentric Frank Zappa, and to jazz great Charles Mingus.
There are of course many other contemporary poets who Cuisinart allusion in this fashion, but such writing for the most part derives from skill at Googling rather than from serious research or necessity. This is not the case with Sleigh, partly because he interweaves his work in this mode with poems that can be disarmingly personal. "Triumph," a poem for the speaker's mother, manages to be offbeat and clinically precise at once, much in the manner that Robert Lowell portrayed his own parents in Life Studies. Here's a characteristic passage from "Triumph":
-- The old drama queen. But she's also got that mad nobility
in her voice that makes me imagine her
riding like a Greek general on a horse through
everything she's been through, my father's death,
her children's cutting silences, her hardscrabble childhood
on the farm where they lived on 50 cents a day ...
Another reason for Sleigh's success with his project is that his command of technique is impeccable. Again we're reminded of Lowell, for it is work of vernacular immediacy that manages to be unobtrusively formal in its ultimate design. The collection is packed with sonnets and nearsonnets, sly use of off-rhyme, and a muscular free verse strongly informed by pentameter. Witness a compressed little tour-de-force baldly entitled "To Death":
You won't wipe away my joy
in my seaweed skin, my hunched neck,
my folds and creases you hide in
even as I throw my arm around you and lie
my leg sweaty and cooling next to yours.
I know you make my face more
interesting on me on this beautifully
lit stage made to look like an open
field where I wander in your theater
of fantasies touching god knows what
in this delirium of bodies
in this noisy club where everybody's
drinking and that's you leaning over
secretly spitting in everybody's drink.
Sleigh has been publishing formidable poetry for almost thirty years, and among American poets of his generation there is no one better. He has arrived at this status in no small measure because few of his generational peers have been as willing to so
successfully address large and abiding subjects as well as intensely personal ones. And that he accomplishes all this with a seething clarity of vision that never lapses into grandiosity makes his accomplishment all the more noteworthy.
At the end of her Iliad essay, Weil compares the pitiless spirit of Homer's depictions of warfare to the message of the Gospels. But Weil's conception of piety is one of exceptional rigor, involving the most difficult of reckonings, and the most hard-won consolations. Art, too-at least the art that is apt to endure-cannot offer easy reckonings or tidy consolations, either.
"Nothing is so rare as to see misfortune fairly portrayed," Weil notes. Tom Sleigh understands this concept as well, and thus Army Cats is nothing less than a triumph.