THE LAND BETWEEN TWO RIVERS: WRITING IN AN AGE OF REFUGEES

REVIEWS

 

World Literature Today
Nota Benes, May 2018

In this book of essays on the refugee crisis, Tom Sleigh recounts his experiences inside militarized war zones and refugee camps, demonstrating how writing explores the complexities of human experiences during this time while honoring the political emotions. He captures the nature of relationships while meditating on youth, restlessness, and illness.


New York Times Book Review
A Traveler to Troubled Lands, Called to Bear Witness

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.

-Tess Taylor


The National, Abu Dhabi
Book review: 'The Land between Two Rivers' painfully conveys the human cost of war

Tom Sleigh has devoted the best part of his career to poetry, both writing it and writing about it. However, after Interview with a Ghost (2006), a collection of essays which blended poetry and autobiography, the New York-based writer veered off and branched out, swapping distillations and examinations of poetic thought for long-form journalism centring on refugee issues.

The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees gathers together a selection of his essays from on-the-ground experiences in war-ravaged hotspots and his accounts of refugee crises. Every tale of courage under fire is offset with horror stories of suffering, desperation and upheaval. But his ruthless pursuit of the truth at what Graham Greene called “the dangerous edge of things”, results in an urgent, compelling and above all necessary work.

In the first essay, The Deeds, Sleigh travels to the village of Qana, Lebanon, in 2007 to assess the damage from Israeli air strikes the previous year. Resisting an intelligence officer’s advice to go shopping in Beirut, Sleigh heads south with Joseph, a Red Cross worker who witnessed the carnage in Qana. He describes the screams, roar of flames and jets, and the ringing of mobile phones. “The relatives of people were calling to see if they were OK.”

Sleigh visits the Shatila refugee camp, then largely for Palestinians, and tries to make sense of Lebanon’s laws and religious sects, politics and internecine warfare. His essay is an absorbing study of grief and grievance. Joseph says there is too much blame among his countrymen and not enough responsibility. “We must look at ourselves,” he says, “but we are bad mirrors.” The second piece takes us into Africa, specifically Kenya and the so-called “Little Mogadishu” camp, home to thousands of Somali refugees. Sleigh learns the reasons for their exodus, their cross-desert treks (with the threat of bandits, kidnappers, rapists, lions and hyenas) and the uncertainty at their journey’s end. This essay provides a textbook example of what it is to go the extra mile.

Sleigh boards a UN plane for Somalia to discover for himself why people risk life and limb to flee. Mogadishu, once termed the most lawless town on Earth (“a place where the average lifespan of a person was reputed to be 17 minutes from the airport to the city centre if you lacked an armed escort”) proves to be terrifying and sobering, eye-opening and mind-altering.

Two other essays complete a perfect quartet. In the book’s eponymous piece – its title the translation of “Mesopotamia” – Sleigh describes teaching writing workshops in Baghdad and Basra in 2014 and the way the experience changed how he viewed Iraq and literature.

In the fourth essay, Sleigh ingeniously intercuts mocked-up medieval Arab tales with real-life stories from the Syrian refugees he met with in Jordan. So ends the book’s first section which is worth the cover price alone. The second part contains essays which look at poetry as an adequate artistic response to violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise.

The third and final part consists of personal work – replayed childhood episodes, early-career Mexican adventures, highlights from a 30-year-friendship with Seamus Heaney – and analysis of what makes Texas-born Sleigh tick.

As a journalist he says he is driven by a need to see things for himself – to cut through “the haze of media-spawned fantasies”, and escape “a hell of abstractions, of canned images, of jabbering, competing ideologies.” This motivation is commendable and it pays dividends, for the best essays here those that relay what he saw and heard on his travels. His many unfiltered observations expertly evoke hardship and chaos. His candid testimonies from aid workers and translators, victims and witnesses, painfully convey the human cost of war.

A UN rep reveals that in refugee camps no one reports a death as that means one less mouth to feed and reduced rations. One woman says she will starve to save her children. Another woman grew so tired carrying both her children that she was forced to leave the heavier one behind.

There is tragedy within these pages but also flashes of humanity, sly comedy and a good deal of poetry. Every essay quotes several poets’ work or wisdom. In one piece Sleigh reads Heaney in the Libyan desert; in another he compares the way Anna Akhmatova aimed blows at Stalin in her verse with how the Libyan poet Ashur Etwebi targeted Gaddafi.

Sleigh says he is only afraid before visiting a conflict zone. In a refugee camp, talking to people, that dread subsides: “I’m so focused on listening that there’s no room for fear.” That fearlessness and focused listening have created some powerful essays which enlarge our understanding of both the role of the writer and the extent of a humanitarian crisis.


Washington Independent Review of Books
February 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

This is Sleigh as journalist, with a stunning exegesis on our current wars. I’m soft, however, on his essays about childhood and, another about a friendship with Seamus Heaney, but as the teens like to say, “It’s all good.”

On World War I poets Wilfred Owen and David Jones:…

The Earth is nothing but unfeeling rock, and if it pulses, that pulse is only the soldier’s heartbeat as it speeds up from the adrenaline rush of fear, from the physical effort of combat. In Keats and Wordsworth, there would have been no qualification about the cause of the earth’s palpitations: it would have been assumed that the earth was in cosmic sympathy with human beings, that the pantheistic reciprocity among all things, animate and inanimate, human and divine, was still available as a mode of feeling  in an Owen poem, summer can still close into a soldiers veins; but in the Jones poem, “dark gobbets” of bodies, or body parts, are oozing out blood, staining torn uniforms of dead soldiers skewered to barbed wire supports…


Michigan Quarterly Review
Horizontal Knowledge: Tom Sleigh’s “The Land Between Two Rivers”

Book review

Inger Christensen’s book-length poem Alphabet — which follows the Fibonnaci sequence and covers ecology, nuclear violence, and love, among other things — contains what might be my favorite lines of poetry. Though I think about them often enough, I found myself thinking about Christensen’s lines frequently while reading Tom Sleigh’s The Land Between Two Rivers, recently published by GraywolfHere they are, emphasis mine:

written otherwise only by children; and wheat,
wheat in wheatfields exists, the head-spinning
horizontal knowledge of wheatfields, half-lives,
famine, and honey;

I’ve always loved the phrase “head-spinning / horizontal knowledge” because it economically describes how confusing knowing contradictory things about the world can be. Such as what cardigan corgi puppies look like versus what nerve gas does to human bodies. Or half-lives, famine, and honey.

I thought about these lines while reading The Land Between Two Rivers because Sleigh’s prose — often about the ugliest things in life, war and rape and murder, and neglect for those suffering rape and murder — is beautiful and sensitive. His writing is simultaneously insightful, stuffed with facts, and beautiful at the line level, all without coming across as twee or overwritten. It’s really something.

But I also thought about Christensen because Sleigh (a poet himself) weaves discussions of poetry into his essays about degradation, and the shift between topics can be “head-spinning.” Granted, some essays change gears more smoothly than others, but when the essays work they really work. The title essay, for example, is about Sleigh’s visit to Iraq with the University of Iowa’s Christopher Merrill, and deftly weaves together Sleigh’s impressions of Iraq with his experience teaching a series of creative writing workshops (an experience Sleigh also wrote about in his 2015 poetry collection Station Zed). It includes the following scene of “a slight young woman named Mariam” reading a poem to a Baghdad workshop:

Mariam stood very straight in front of her classmates and read to us with a quiet, unself-conscious dignity. Her pronunciation was excellent, so I have a good memory of what she wrote. She said that she was woken in her bedroom near dawn by her older brother, who had bent down to kiss her gently on the cheek, and to ask her if she wanted anything special in the market. And when she looked up at him, to tell him no, he said to her, very gently, that this would be the last time she’d be seeing him. But she was so sleepy, she didn’t quite take in what he meant, and a moment later he was gone. Later that morning, she wrote, she was in the kitchen having breakfast with her mother. And then their neighbor came in and gave them the news. She wrote that as she heard the news, she felt herself get smaller and disappear: she had no hands, no face, no body to feel with. There was no kitchen, no mother, no her. The neighbor, she wrote, told them about the “car accident.” She wrote how she remembers he brother’s words coming back to her, how gentle he was when he kissed her on the cheek, how he would always bring her special things from the market. And then she sat down, seeming completely self-possessed, except for the sadness that had come into her voice and hung now in the room. No one said anything for awhile, as what she hadn’t said — didn’t need to say, since everyone in her generation already understood — resonated for a few moments. Chris and I looked at each other, but we were slower in grasping what it was she’d left out. And then it dawned on us too: her brother had been a suicide bomber and blown himself up in the car.

While The Land Between Two Rivers is generally excellent, its parts do not form as cohesive a whole as one might like: where the first section’s essays are expressly about refugees and conflict, in the second section Sleigh moves on to World War I poetry (in “To Be Incarnational,” which uses his experiences in Somalia as a framing device for an analysis of David Jones and Wilfred Owen’s work) and imprisonment, Anna Ahkmatova, Gaddafi, and Tomas Tranströmer in “How to Make a Toilet-Paper-Roll Blowgun.” The collection’s third section contains four more personal essays, closing the book with “A Man of Care,” a lovely piece about Seamus Heaney, who addressed the Troubles in his work, and with whom Sleigh was close friends.

After the initial section of war/refugee essays, I found myself puzzled by the turns The Land Between Two Rivers was taking. Part of this may be because of the expectations I had going into the book — after all, its title is a reference to Mesopotamia, its subtitle is “Writing in an Age of Refugees,” and the book’s cover image includes a picture of a refugee camp. I was also somewhat disappointed because the initial section is so gripping, and what follows is a tad less gripping. The writing is uniformly fine, to be sure, but after scenes like the above from the title essay, and the following from “The Deeds,” who wouldn’t feel let down?

He paused again to sip his tea, then said in a quiet voice, “It was like a lake of blood and the deeds are stained with blood.” I assumed he was speaking in metaphors, until he asked, “Would you like to see the deeds?” He called his nephew on the cell phone. A few minutes later a heavyset young man of about twenty arrived on a motorbike to show me the deeds to the family’s property in what is now Israel. I could see that the paper was discolored with blood, the legalese obscured by three long, brown, faded stains. “The deeds were found by accident when my uncle and cousin came over to our house — after the soldiers dynamited it — to see if there was anything they could do to help us. I saw my home blown up. But the worst thing I saw, the worst thing I ever saw, was my brother, still a baby, suckling at my dead mother’s breast.”

Regardless of my griping about the collection’s curation, we need more books like this. The Land Between Two Rivers calls to mind James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in that both books were written by “amateurs” — both Sleigh and Agee are/were first and foremost literary writers, yet their books are works of journalism. This is a theme Sleigh revisits often: What is he, a poet, Sleigh wonders repeatedly, doing posing as a journalist in X desperate place? The good news for his readers is that Sleigh’s worries are unfounded, as his reporting is lively and intellectually engaging in a way that is too often missing from “traditional” journalism. We need more writing from poets like Sleigh, particularly writing about criminally underserved topics like the plight of refugees.

For example, according to the CIA World Factbook there are 1,467,670 refugees in Lebanon alone, a country smaller than Connecticut. Put another way, the number of refugees in Lebanon is a tick higher than the population of San Diego. Yet is this something we hear about? Does the fact that 1.5 million desperate people have been forced from their homes and crammed into a small, politically fragile country dominate the news? Instead, we are subjected to a steady stream of high crimes and misdemeanors, with the odd goofy flat earth story.

Of course, the media problem is well-known; it’s hard to get people to care about things that don’t affect their lives. But what’s striking is the degree to which experts also don’t know what to do with refugees. For example, the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study — which reports on and analyzes “health loss from hundreds of diseases, injuries, and risk factors” — aggregates data by region and country, covering 195 countries; there are few gaps in GBD’s coverage. But if GBD reports population health by country, how are refugees, who don’t have countries, counted?

To wit: one can find primary sources related to refugee health in the Global Health Data Exchange (GHDx, which houses GBD data), but there is a dearth of refugee-related data sources in the otherwise data-rich GHDx. If one searches for “refugee,” in the GHDx, one finds sixty-seven sources. If one searches for “North Korea” — and the Hermit Kingdom isn’t exactly a fount of information — one finds 12,579 sources. Additionally, the only mention of refugees in the main GBD 2015 paper about Middle Eastern health, “Danger ahead: The burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, 1990-2015,” comes in the following terse statement:

The wars and unrest have led to major migration and a large refugee population inside and outside the region. For many host countries, the existing health systems and infrastructure do not support such a large additional population.

I could go on and on; the point is that The Land Between Two Rivers is important and necessary (in addition to being very, very good). And finally, it’s also does one of best things literature can do, which is inspire interest in literature. It made me want to read other work by Sleigh, discover other writing like this, and finally, spread the word about this book.

Finally, because Sleigh is a poet, and because one of the major themes of The Land Between Two Rivers is using literature as a lens through which the world can be examined, I’d like to end with a poem. This is from Station Zed’s “Eclipse”:

A nail in the wall is what the world hangs on:
a poster of the latest “big man” whose name
in fifty years nobody will know; or Jesus looking
put upon, head drooping on the cross, hands bleeding

a hundred times over in the wooden gallery
of tiny Jesuses for sale. Or else a mosquito net
drapes down in a gauzy canopy
over the narrow, self-denying cot

where you sleep for a few hours, sweating out
malaria between parsing words
writing the fatal formula that cuts

into the mind terms you can’t live with or without:
“We are foreign men in a white world,
or foreign-educated men in a black world.”

-Kevin O'Rourke


Publishers Weekly
PW Picks: Books of the Week, February 5, 2018 and starred book review

Sleigh (Station Zed), a poet who teaches at Hunter College, takes the title of this beautiful collection from his essay about teaching poetry at universities in Iraq, but his theme is the transformational nature of poetry. Sleigh recounts his time working as a journalist in Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, and Somalia. His stories from these war-torn places are sharply observed and humane, whether he is recording descriptions of what it is like to be processed into the massive refugee camp at Dadaab, Kenya, or to work in a sweets shop in Amman, Jordan, or relaying his own experience of watching a severely malnourished child become alert after eating a nutritional wafer in Mogadishu. But these stories are only one part of his project, which is to articulate how it is that poetry can capture what Seamus Heaney calls “the music of what happens,” the essence of direct lived experience. The second half of the book is a remarkable critical memoir, in which Sleigh writes perceptively about some of his poet heroes, including David Jones, Anna Akhmatova, and, most prominently, his lifelong friend Heaney. What emerges is a uniquely personal take on the responsibilities of the poet and the potential for language to be “a form of care.”

Agent: Lane Zachary, Aevitas Creative Management NYC. (Feb.)

Sleigh-land-1.jpg

Macmillan | Books for the First-Year Experience

Tom Sleigh describes himself donning flak jacket and helmet, working as a journalist inside militarized war zones and refugee camps, as “a sort of Rambo Jr.” With self-deprecation and empathetic humor, these essays recount Sleigh’s experiences during several tours in Africa and in the Middle Eastern region once called Mesopotamia, “the land between two rivers.” Sleigh asks three central questions: What did I see? How could I write about it? Why did I write about it? The first essays focus on the lives of refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia, and Iraq. Under the conditions of military occupation, famine, and war, their stories can be harrowing, even desperate, but they’re also laced with wily humor and an undeluded hopefulness, their lives having little to do with their depictions in mass media. The second part of this book explores how writing might be capable of honoring the texture of these individuals’ experiences while remaining faithful to political emotions, rather than political convictions. Sleigh examines the works of Anna Akhmatova, Mahmoud Darwish, Ashur Etwebi, David Jones, Tomas Tranströmer, and others as guiding spirits. Concluding with a beautiful remembrance of Sleigh’s friendship with Seamus Heaney, the final essays meditate on youth, restlessness, illness, and Sleigh’s motivations for writing his own experiences in order to move out into the world.


Catch News
Books that you cannot miss reading this Feb!

SWAPNA MOHANTY

With an empathetic humor the writer-journalist, Tom Sleigh would take you to the land where refugees live through his book titled, 'The Land between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees.'  Places like Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia, and Iraq form the backdrop of the book.

Harrowing, desperate condition of families staying in refugee camps would, at times, disturb you but the witty humor added by the writer would definitely take you through the book.


Book Riot
GREAT ESSAY COLLECTIONS FROM WINTER/SPRING 2018

Tom Sleigh is a poet and essayist who has worked as a journalist in war zones and refugee camps. Here, he describes his experiences on several tours in Africa and the Middle East. The essays describe the lives of refugees and explore how writing can address their experiences. This is a book that can help us think through the refugee experience and how art can help us understand and address it. (February 6, Graywolf Press)


BBC Culture
Ten books to read in February

By Jane Ciabattari
31 January 2018

Sleigh, a poet and a journalist who has reported from Africa and the Middle East (the region once called Mesopotamia or “the land between two rivers”), offers essays with rare insight. He writes of his first assignment in Qana, a village south of Beirut where 28 Lebanese civilians were killed during the 2006 war with Israel. After “meandering” through Iraq in the title essay, dipping into war zones, and sharing conversations with a fellow writer, he returns to Yeats, “who once said the purpose of all art is: to hold reality and justice in a single thought.” He writes of Syria, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia, and concludes with a remarkable appreciation of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, his poet friend, who, through the Troubles in Northern Ireland, became “finely tuned” to impending violence. (Credit: Graywolf Press)


Kirkus Review


Review Issue Date: November 15, 2017
Online Publish Date: October 30, 2017

A distinguished poet details his experiences reporting from war zones and refugee camps and grappling with the limits of language.In this essay collection, Sleigh (Creative Writing/Hunter Coll.; Station Zed: Poems, 2015, etc.) showcases 10 pieces—some previously published—each of which examines the impact of war and political struggle on individual experience. He divides the book into three untitled sections. The first includes pieces the author wrote while visiting war zones in the Middle East and Africa. In "The Deeds," he discusses his interviews with Palestinians affected by the ongoing conflict with Israel and their efforts to carve out lives in neighboring Lebanon and Syria. The plight of Somali refugees in Kenya is the subject of another essay. Not only do many not know their rights; most live in conditions conducive only to starvation and hopelessness. In the second section of the book, Sleigh meditates on the work he does as a writer reporting on the human costs of conflict. He remarks that his driving passion is for "an art in which bodily reality isn't slighted" and that also compels the artist to continue looking at "the surfaces of the world." Analyzing work by poets Wilfred Owen, David Jones, and Anna Akhmatova, Sleigh refines this idea by emphasizing that the true artist is one who is "empirical rather than speculative." In the final section of the book, the author explores the personal history that formed him. He writes about how surviving a marrow disease may have pushed him beyond the fear that could have impeded him from traveling to war zones and how coming into awareness of his well-meaning parents' racism gave rise to his own desire to understand injustice. Sleigh also remembers his beloved friend Seamus Heaney, who saw poets as "stretched between politics and transcendence." Wry and sharply observed, Sleigh's book bears witness to injustice as it engages in a compelling, humane quest for artistic truth. Provocative and eye-opening work from a dedicated artist.


Library Journal, Barbara's Nonfiction Picks, Feb. 2018

September 15, 2017
Barbara Hoffert

What happens when a leading poet puts on a flak jacket to work as a journalist inside militarized war zones and refugee camps throughout Africa and the Middle East (specifically the area once called Mesopotamia, “the land between two rivers”)? You get this book, which reports on the displaced of Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and more as they struggle under awful conditions yet remain hopeful, even humorous. Sleigh also reflects on how to avoid ideology when presenting the emotional urgency of such people, touching on the works of writers from Anna Akhmatova to Mahmoud Darwish. From a terrific Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner; I can’t wait to read.