HOUSE OF FACT, HOUSE OF RUIN: POEMS
In “Barbarian in the Garden,” the poet Zbigniew Herbert’s collection of essays published in the 1980s, Herbert, fresh out of Cold War Poland, travels around Europe, meditating on food, art and the relationship of culture to torture or violence. He’ll savor Orvieto wine or truffles on village patios before delving into the historic burning of a medieval sect known as the Cathars or the slaughter of bulls commemorated at Lascaux. As Herbert travels across Europe, his essays move in constellation, asking: How do moments of deep human culture relate to moments of deep human violence? How does the history of art relate to the history of torture? These are complex questions. No one would expect a poet to answer straightforwardly. In a world that would like simple answers, Herbert evades simplicity.
The ingredients of Herbert’s essays rose up for me again as I read Tom Sleigh’s linked and intertwined new books — one of memoir and reportage (“The Land Between Two Rivers”), and one of poems (“House of Fact, House of Ruin”). Like Herbert, Sleigh is a deliberate traveler in the troubled world. Rather than unearth the deep cruelties of European history, Sleigh leaves the confusions of 21st-century America to visit some of the world’s hot zones: Kurdistan, Mogadishu, rural Lebanon, Nairobi. Sometimes he’s conducting poetry workshops; sometimes he’s dealing with cultural attachés or smooth-tongued diplomats; sometimes he’s face to face with refugees in camps. At all times his mission is also to be present with his own body, with others, and with the notebook whose contents he will eventually weave into essays and poems that feed one another, sometimes cannibalizing one another line for line, joke for joke.
In Herbert’s title, there was a sly pun: Herbert, the Pole, was the barbarian; Europe was the garden. Sleigh’s garden is Qana; the Lebanese town where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine, now the site of two particularly devastating Israeli bombings; and also Baghdad, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, cradle of civilization, now the violence-ridden capital of Iraq. In writing from parts of the world that are all too often refracted in what Sleigh calls “crisis chatter” or “disaster porn,” he wants to investigate what it means to be present among others who are more often than not perched on some precarious verge. Yet as Sleigh makes clear, he’s also uncomfortable with what might be called “the poetry of witness” or with any overweening formulation of “speaking for the voiceless.” When called upon to explain what he’s trying to do, Sleigh, who has spent much of his adult life too sick to travel in this way, or to practice the craft of journalism he so admires, talks about wanting to learn from the “negative capability” of journalism. By this he means getting close enough to a complex thing to suspend any agenda except for detail, observation, texture, note-taking. Obviously, Sleigh cannot help having a vantage, a prejudice, a body, but he also wants to follow both his watching mind and his language where they lead.
Like Herbert, Sleigh often explores the hair-trigger balance between culture and chaos. Like Herbert, who began an essay on human brutality by savoring truffles, Sleigh often lingers over food as the base form of pleasure and culture by which we create and sustain human peace. Sleigh revels in the moment in Jordan when a skilled Syrian refugee finds a new life as the baker of a honeyed bird’s-nest pastry called kenafeh. He’s drawn to the moment when a formerly listless child in Mogadishu perks up and begins “playing with the shiny wrapper of a nutritional biscuit he’d just eaten” and the moment in the relative calm of Kurdistan when he and a friend “stood in line with everyone else helping themselves to the abundance of local cheeses, baklava and other honeyed pastries.” In Sleigh’s hands these moments of ongoingness mix something of the daily with something of the miraculous. As he points out, “people — even people threatened by drought and starvation — have to get on with their lives.” Yet he also notes when they can’t, as at a field outside Qana where oranges cannot be harvested because the ground is still seeded with bombs. In a poem called “Before Rain” (which might as easily have been called “After Ruin”), Sleigh writes: “Trees grow up where there once were people, weeds / take over beds of lettuces and coddled flowers, / uprearing mole hills unpopulate the fields.” As he observes in the next line, “the bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down.” Sleigh is after the enormously fragile ways that even in the face of war or famine people do get on, even while at any moment survival, that most fragile of luxuries, might just as easily end.
As a poet-journalist traveling through war zones, Sleigh also has a distinct precursor in Walt Whitman, who in traveling to Civil War hospitals and battlefields filled his notebooks with dispatches that would later become the essayistic poems “Drum Taps” as well as the impressionistic essays in “Specimen Days.” In his poetry and his prose, Whitman was exploring novel forms of writing in a new democracy — a language of access, of one body witnessing another in shared space. Like Whitman, Sleigh here plays with what the observer’s notebook can become. He embeds lines of poetry in journalistic essays like a rogue reporter; conversely, he’ll forge a sonnet or rhymed tercets out of reported language, as he does in poems that incorporate the testimony of Tony Lagouranis, who witnessed the torture at Abu Ghraib. Sleigh doffs his hat to Whitman expliciitly, noting in one poem that he’s practicing “with Whitman a raw / form of brinksmanship.”
If Sleigh’s brinksmanship is about drawing near to lives at the verge, it is also about trying to record the narratives by which lives come to have meaning, and finding the language in which we come to understand what Sleigh calls “the soul’s vulnerable republic.” Sleigh’s cross-pollinating forms remind us that language, too, is always being deployed to some purpose. In the face of propaganda, political backlash and crisis chatter, which stories allow us to become human to one another? Just outside Qana, Sleigh listens to a man named Joseph, who was asked to recover the shattered bodies of small children after the most recent bombings. At that moment, they see in the rubble the “gleaming, flesh-colored, plastic thigh and leg of a baby doll.” The image is chilling.
Later, meditating on this experience, Sleigh mulls the words of Robert Frost, who said that politics is “an extravagance about grievances, and poetry is an extravagance about grief.” In Frost’s formulation, the divisions at first seem clean. The politics of grievance face outward, acting publicly, while poetry turns inward to attend to our private landscapes of sorrow. Yet look more closely, and things become murky. To which realm do Joseph’s memories of the shattered bodies of the lost girls and the still-present doll belong? To what realm do they belong when Sleigh tells us Joseph’s story?
Most of us live and breathe between the scales of so-called political and so-called private life; the languages we speak shift depending on circumstances. Late in his essay collection, after Sleigh has recounted his travels, he shifts registers. He describes some of the sources of his own grief — about his parents, who felt coerced into uncomfortable business dealings in the segregated South, and especially his mother, whose electroshock treatments left her uneasily adrift from the self she’d been before. He describes his own illness. How might these things forge a politics, a poetics, an imagination? Sleigh has made a project of trying to write about other lives under pressure, at the brink. He’s also watching himself watching, wondering how to read the longings and sorrows that urge him, the watcher, on.
Washington Independent Review of Books
February 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
Sleigh reveals that “fact” and “ruin” are the same, as much as we’d like to believe our little mortality is a real commodity. He takes meaning to its extreme, pushing logic to become philosophy — taking the rough stuff of this earth, rolling it around in his hands and then letting us know just what it’s worth. The book has a great portion devoted to war (Libya, Baghdad) when he was witness to devastation, and writes of what he saw. But even more, he made a promise to young combatants to “tell their story.” Some of the poems are first sight, and others retelling. Because Sleigh was trained as an anthropologist he can realistically replicate cultural events. Although one doesn’t have to be an anthropologist to record the chilling horror of death, destruction and loss, the transcendent task is to never let it descend to reportage if poetry is the goal. Poetry is Sleigh’s task here and he’s one of a handful of writers today upholding the brightest part of our canon.
“Down from the Mount” is a four-page poem that’s heartbreaking, “all are dead ones like after-party/stragglers who//keep showing up in dreams, /saying, I want you/to keep this for me.” Later: “The dogs are terrorists to cats, the cats/terrorists to rats, the rats terrorists/to each other watching each other’s/terror. The rock band warming up to shut//inside its wall of noise…” Although there’s death at the ending, nobility in the writing overrides this. Sleigh, again and again, shows that poetry is a mechanism of service tapping into something more eternal than what we think is present and substantive. What is the substory of Sleigh’s poetry? He’s carrying on history — his own as well as others. The eight-part poem titled “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” presents windows into the treatment of POWs in perfect 14 line “sonnets.” (Talk about containing the tumult!) And with each narration is an actual interrogation technique combined with dreamlike surreality (poem 5): “We’d have three strobes/going at once, we’d lock this guy in a little box/and like me he’s afraid of insects and I’d have to turn into ants.”
The chaos and human defeats through the poems are dignified by a musicality and coherence. In the title poem “House of Fact, House of Ruin” — another long one — seven pages — listen to the glorious start of the fifth section titled “The Last To Be Excused”: “Remember the old aunts, sarcastic,/chain-smoking, gesturing with their canes,/scoring point after point with their widowed lungs?//How was I to eat with them as they pushed/ around their plates not peas and carrots/but distance and disdain for their silly nephew//still trying, at his age, to forget/how being old is as new to the old/as being just born is to the just born…”
Since Sleigh is known for his prose, it’s not surprising that several prose poems are in this book. My favorite is “Autobiography,” with an epigraph by mystery writer Raymond Chandler. (Ah, the romanticism.) A postmodern “intimations,” it’s a story of growing up, a permutation where Sleigh presents events, finally leaving “my promised land of Raymond Chandler”…“That was when I left the steppes forever, when/the tangled underlife entwined with voices that pricked/and burned, were now flattened to black squiggles on a page/where what comes from the tribe the tribe has lost…” He wisely notes at the end he knows he needs life insurance, plus, “I needed a vacation, /I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, /hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”
No matter how imagination becomes fantasy, there’s always a gravitational field in Sleigh’s work, so we don’t dare allow ourselves to be seduced. We know it’ll be fact to ruin, after all, although never said better; and when each piece is written it leaves, in spite of itself, a tough love that outlasts its life. Sleigh makes poetry go beyond itself. Like Wallace Stevens there’s an imperative beneath the line, words as a consequence of fine-grained thought. The complexities of experience can only be written with complexity, but the fundamental gift of craft makes poetry responsive to the world and allows the reader to respond in kind. He couldn’t do this without clarity and irony, making the consequential burdens of life beautiful things.
Marine helicopters on maneuver kept dipping
toward swells at Black’s Beach, my board’s poise
giving way to freefall of my wave tubing
over me, nubs of wax under my feet as I crouched
under the lip, sped across the face and kicked out —
all over Southern Cal a haze settled: as if light breathed
that technicolor smog at sunset over
San Diego Harbor where battleships at anchor,
just back from patrolling the South China Sea, were
having rust scraped off and painted gray.
This was my inheritance that lay stretched before me:
which is when I felt the underbrush give way
and the fox that thrives in my brain,
not looking sly but just at home in his pelt
and subtle paws, broke from cover and ran
across the yard into the future to sniff my gravestone,
piss, and move on. And so I was reborn into
my long nose and ears, my coat’s red, white, and brown
giving off my fox smell lying heavy on the winds
in the years when I’d outsmart guns, poison,
dogs and wire, when the rooster and his hens
clucked and ran, crazy with terror
at how everything goes still in that way a fox adores,
gliding through slow-motion drifts of feathers.
The artist Celeste Dupuy-Spencer interprets what’s happening on Page 76 of newly published or upcoming titles. Plus, a few other releases on our radar.
Feb. 13, 2018
House of Fact, House of Ruin
Poems by Tom Sleigh
And what my freedom gave me
on the far side of the plains were mountains that salt flats
led away from to my promised land of Raymond Chandler,
the total marine darkness between each little beach town
on Highway 101 before the sullen phosphorus
of the cruise ship casino three miles beyond the harbor.
With these poems, Sleigh travels from battlefields ranging in location from Baghdad to Brooklyn’s projects, interrogating the increasingly shaky notion of truth and the extent to which the work of artists (Piero della Francesca, Jimi Hendrix) might offer some redemption. “Autobiography,” quoted above, was partly inspired by Raymond Chandler’s 1940 detective novel “Farewell, My Lovely.” Published by Graywolf Press on Feb. 6.
January 31, 2018
The poems of Sleigh’s generous new collection are placed in two parts of three sections each. The parts have prefatory poems that evoke the poems’ frequent setting in the Arabic and Islamic world and exemplify Sleigh’s procedure. Called “Three Wishes” and “Genie,” respectively, the prefatory poems shift from the descriptive to the reflective, analytic, or explanatory in a manner not always strictly logical but always imaginatively convincing. Other poems probe violent contemporary scenes in Benghazi, Baghdad, the Golan Heights, the Iraqi desert, Paris, and Brooklyn, or portray apologists (“Propaganda,” based on an interview with “the Syrian Minister of Expatriates”) and executants (“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”) of such violence. Sleigh has been to the places and talked with the people of his poems—which aren’t all about conflict but include penetrating elegies, autobiographical bits, ruminations about animals, and more—and he knows the literary bases of the West well, especially Homer and the sonnet (a customary form for him, customarily half-rhymed). Thus informed, his poems range centuries and plumb the mysteries of human inconsistency with haunting forcefulness.
— Ray Olson
Must-Read Poetry: February 2018
House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh
Poet as reporter, reporter as poet. In Sleigh’s essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers, he ponders the differences between American and Iraqi poetry. He sees the poets Naseer Hassan and Hamed al-Maliki as championing “the Rilkean attributes of vision, inspiration, and the ability to express profound feeling,” in contrast to the occasional “poetry gloom” he feels in the states—born from “the world of workshops, ‘scenes,’ and hyperbolic blurbs.” Sleigh’s new poetry collection is informed by his reporting on the lives of refugees, but it is instructive to see the difference between his modes of writing and seeing. In “Lizards,” an early poem from the book, he is patient: “In the desert the lizard is the only liquid flowing under rocks and / down into crevices, undulating in shadows.” Above the lizard, “in heatwaves turning into air,” the mirage—or perhaps the reality—of tanks appear. Around them “mosques broadcasting wails of static, / baffled minarets like letters of secret code, a whole codex of holiness / and banalities.” The lizards go on, with their “still, flat eyes.” Around them, “marked in red, are the circled oil fields, the blow-torch / refinery flames / looking like souls in illuminated manuscripts.” What Sleigh helps us see in these poems is something deeper than journalism can offer: a heart and mind torn by inhabiting a world but not fully grasping its pain. “Whatever you do,” he writes, “there are rockets falling, / and after the rockets, smoke climbing.” Weeds swallow “beds of lettuces and coddled flowers.” What happens when “the bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down”?
Sleigh (Station Zed) blurs the boundary between art and artifact as he lyrically documents war zones in Libya, Iraq, and Syria in this 10th poetry collection, released concurrently with The Land Between Two Rivers, a new book of essays. He performs feats of empathy in attempting to witness torture from the perspectives of the tortured (“smooth barrels of their AKs press into my back// and against my chest”) and the torturer (“if infantry brings/ you a guy you think is shooting mortars, scaring/ him with a muzzled dog doesn’t seem like the worst trick./ I was willing to try it. I didn’t know it wasn’t going to work”). Accounts of violence do not spare the reader any of the details or questions that might occur to an eyewitness. “What do you know about atrocity?/ the scream of the frozen open mouth showing gold fillings in the molars,” Sleigh writes. He also references Biblical narratives without much hope that Jesus (who he refers to as “what’s his name”) or God (who is addressed as “OMG”) can provide more solace than any of the literary figures, including Phillip Levine and Mark Strand, whom he conjures in several poems written in memoriam. Sleigh brings readers close to trauma with a lyrical treatment from which one wants to turn but cannot.
Agent: Lane Zachary, Aevitas Creative Management NYC. (Feb.)
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By LORRAINE BERRY
January 29, 2018
Is this what our love requires—to be embarrassed
but not embarrassed by how unlovely
or needy or gauche our bodies are?
Tom Sleigh has translated Herakles from the Greek, and previously published nine volumes of poetry. In House of Fact, House of Ruin, Sleigh devotes the first section to American experiences in the Middle East during the decade-plus of American-involved war. Whether interpreting the words of the officer who wonders the cost of participating in enhanced interrogation, or the voice of a soldier waiting to go into battle, Sleigh carries readers into the thick of it. In an adjoining section, Sleigh vilifies the lives of those countries’ inhabitants, the militia member who remembers the smoking cigarettes of lost comrades. Later poems find subjects in Long Island, in shopping malls, and in shanty towns in east Africa.
Ann Arbor, MI
With his previously published collections such as Station Zed and Army Cats, one might easily assume that Tom Sleigh would face great difficulty when attempting to produce an even more intriguing and sonically appetizing collection. House of Fact, House of Ruin, Sleigh’s latest collection, accomplishes this task in addition to much, much more. Through his narrative tracts and winding, nearly symphonic syntax, Sleigh is able to slow down the momentum of contemporary tragedy, making such things as war, torture, death, and Western society’s incessant need to forcibly interact with others, completely viewable. Free in both its formal boundaries and its desires to amplify the liminal space of transition—from the literal into the fictive along with the fictive into the literal—this collection attacks the dilemmas of our present times—alternative facts, entrenched rhetoric, and displacing news cycles—with a sobering audacity. Sleigh mitigates normalcy by taking his audience on an unnaturally complicated ride: with each poem comes a new location and an even newer—peculiar—sensation.