Ploughshares, Philip Levine, Fall 2007
Philip Levine recommends Space Walk, poems by Tom Sleigh: "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." (Houghton Mifflin)
The Hopkins Review, Douglas Basford, January 2008
“Sleigh’s [work] is among the most full-bodied, expansive verse being written in America today... Sleigh’s latest collection, Space Walk, is a continuation of the important work in his book just previous, Far Side of the Earth... The arc of memory and the haunting of the deparated are indelible marks. I trust only a handful of poets to write about ghosts—heaney, Merrill, Sleigh...top my list. Sleigh’s hard-earned knowledge of the “nekuia—“Where is the zone,//Imperishable, I must enter?” shows through in the almost-gossamer strangness of his vision. In “Oracle,” perhaps the strongest elegy for a parent I’ve read in recent years, he resurrects his father, a government scientist, on the day of a major test of a Titan rocket...Sleigh has a finely tuned Pop sensibility, as he would put it himself, having quoted Arthur C. Danto on this point in a Bread Loaf lecture that now appears in Interview with a Ghost: “an unembarrassed conviction that life’s shadowy meanings or non meanings lie in its ordinary terrors and troubles, objects and appetites...”
Bookslut, Jason Jones, September 2007
“Tom Sleigh wrote a very fine essay in the Winter 2006 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review. On "Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry," Sleigh protests both the merciless exposure of subjectivity of some contemporary poets and theorists and the naively pretheoretical stance of others (he calls this latter view an "almost preliterate hostility") in defending the poetic self. He points out, perfectly reasonably, that an ambivalence about the self -- or, rather, an interest in the possibilities of a contested self -- is a consistent strain in American poetry from Anne Bradstreet to the present. Ultimately, he values "[d]issonance of feeling, the disrelation of 'I' to any settled viewpoint, which is a way of being that seems foreclosed to the 'mind at rest'" in poems, and he wants to find an urgent commitment to these problems whenever he reads...the essay is a valuable jumping-off point for the selves of Space Walk, Sleigh's seventh book of poems....
September 11 , the war in Iraq, sexually transmitted diseases, rape, and the lesser traumas of love and family life are all taken on here, frequently in mini-groupings of poems that set off reverberations of meaning and feeling. I suspect Victor Hanson, the designated classicist for neo-conservative warmongering, will not much care for Sleigh's use of Tacitus, Achilles, and other persons
from that grand tradition -- though he would be the poorer for it. Sleigh binds his interest in the flexibility of the poetic self to a series of experiments in form -- there are many poems that double in on themselves in odd, slanting ways, complicating that "sentimental blueprint, / lacking depth -- / a ruled axis X and Y / whose illusions / were bearable... / then unbearable..." so many of us carry (Sleigh's ellipses). Many have wondered whether we in the West have "grit" enough for the war on terror, a truly weird question Sleigh inverts: in this war, "our knowledge is the knowledge / of drifting sand, grit in the cupboard, / grit under the bed where a doll's head, / button eyes open, lies forgotten." Sleigh's formal control and classicism give these poems a striking authority.
...Space Walk is a fine collection of poems, particularly when viewed from Sleigh's own criteria of self-impersonation. For these poems' conversation with one another yields that "dissonance of feeling" he values. (For example, tracking the idea of necessity, particularly historical necessity, across these poems, is fascinating.) There are many poems that confound political or social engagement with sheer denunciation; Tom Sleigh offers up a quite different relation to the world.”
Peter Campion, Poetry Northwest, 2008
Who genuinely feels, after all, that he or she is responsible for a war begun under the cover of lies? What rational person would see in his or herself the image of George Bush, not to mention his reptilian cabinet? Yet if the outrage that boils beneath those questions might swell the picket lines, it doesn’t, at least on its own, make for good poems. This is the difference between protest itself and the art of protest. The task that the latter performs, the rendering of consciousness in crisis, needs to transmit its own countering forces. This can make it even more radical in the end than the kind of protest that goes down on the street. Since artwork shows us the totality in which we’re caught, those political structures we live inside and that live inside us, aren’t we then impelled to resist more fundamentally?
There are, in fact, contemporary poems that respond to our political experience in this deeper sense. One of these is “Discipline” by Tom Sleigh. The poem is the narrative of a brief encounter. Here’s the first half:
Random meeting at a bar,
random association that didn’t
need to happen, was it me
feeling and saying what I said,
shaky after, but at the moment
loosening to friendship
during time of war?—
He had good biceps,
straight teeth, fancy sneakers.
Then he showed a pic of
his soldier lover: tall, skinny,
appealing in a young Abe Lincoln way:
“When’s he come home?”
“Six months but he
already got extended ninety days.”
He looked so young—and what? was it
heat building in my gaze as we
stared together, desire crossing
boundaries so that me thinking
I’m straight, my war Vietnam
began to chafe at strict
division enforced along lines
of discipline laid down
of what naked bodies do
and uniformed bodies don’t?—
anyway, shouldn’t a patriot want
to go to bed to solace a soldier
as handsome as this one, to feel pressure
of his eyes hard against
mine, his body in the line
of fire conspiring to let me move
Like Whitman’s ideal Americans who “think lightly of the laws,” the poet certainly moves beyond usual boundaries. His transgression lends the poem both its allure and its dramatic tension. Narrative allows Sleigh to dramatize, in isolate moments, the kind of moral ambiguities that in Whitman are dispersed throughout the work. But Sleigh’s talent is not for narrative alone. Much of the drama here flows from a collision of genres. The poem begins with one convention of storytelling (“I met this guy in a bar…”) but the actual story leads us into the classic triangulation of erotic lyric. And the interior force of desire not only tempts the poet, but also pushes against the exterior plot of the poem. Neither narrative nor lyric has a set political identity, and they’re fused here anyhow, but the tension between them corresponds roughly with the pull between freedom and constraint, the transgression as well as the “division enforced along lines” that it makes apparent. That friction takes a fascinating turn as the poem moves toward its ending:
then the lover took out a letter from his soldier
that he showed me in what? a subtle gesture
of flirtation I just as subtly invited,
aware even in my straightness
I was over the line, voyeur
to myself, the war, the lover and his soldier
writing home how hot
the sun got, he’d shot a rubber bullet
into a crowd, he was going a little nuts
like those movies where the soldier always loses it—
the crowd was yelling, running, crossing
a line, zigging,
stumbled, went down—
I turned my gaze from the photo’s
smiling eyes, heat building in my looking
burning off and leaving
us awkward, cooling in
the once companionable dark:
“You must miss him.”
“Well, you can see how
tall he is. His feet hung over
the edge of the bed. He
makes an easy target.”
And then we got up to go,
me to come here, losing, then finding another
like him and his soldier
and the war far away
in these words but still
going on, each walking his own
shifty line of discipline.
The whole poem balances on the fulcrum of that moment when the poet turns his gaze from the picture. Imagine how much weaker the poem would be if Sleigh hadn’t included those four words, “building in my looking.” If the poet’s interest had suddenly evaporated after hearing about the shooting in Iraq, how schematic,
how unreal the politics of the poem would have felt. Desire simply doesn’t work that way. As it stands, the poem complicates our sense of the connection between emotions and beliefs. It’s as if the poet has taken the old, sixties slogan, “the personal is political” and explored the implications that stretch way beyond its usual, bumpersticker usage. Sleigh’s poem works to reveal our entanglement in those “shifty lines” that we often ignore, but that still crop up—as when a straight person feels an attraction to someone of the same sex, or when Eros mingles with Thanatos, or a gay soldier has to hide his identity, or a soldier who doesn’t want to fire even rubber bullets is forced (“he already got extended ninety days”) into his frightening role.
But can a poem do more than show us our entanglement? Wouldn’t that work alone be fatalistic? I think it can perform something greater. At the very end of “Discipline,” Sleigh admits that the people in the poem are virtual, are not the actual men in the bar and in the photo. This might seem to leach power from the artwork, to remove it from the plane of action. But Sleigh’s turn at the end is no stock, po-mo evasion. As the people morph into words they manage two things at once: They confer a sense of responsibility upon the writer who must render them and, since they become fictional, they allow the kind of creaturely play that pushes against the lines of our moral systems. After all, one of the features of the best political poetry is the collapsing of the division between play and responsibility. It’s what happens when in reading Whitman, for example, we come across such contradictory passages as the exalting of those reflected faces in the water and the grumbling that “the best class we show, is but a mob of fashionably dress’d speculators and vulgarians.” These passages gain their moral power and endurance from being propositions rather than rhetorical opinions. As such, they ask us to test the connections between emotions and beliefs, between statements and their referents. They compel us to consider a totality that evades our too-easy binaries, to imagine the causes and effects of our actions as more mysterious and more vital. One result is that we leave the artwork able to praise and protest more fully in the world.
Robert Pinsky, Poet’s Choice, Washington Post
Certain scenes keep returning in memory to represent something essential in a life, the way bits of a movie trailer represent the movie -- a scrap of dialogue, a facial expression, a landscape. Poetry, by creating such a scene in one life -- something Mother once said, for example -- can crystallize and hold up for inspection forces that govern life in general. Poetic attention gives the circumstances of a moment in one life some of the enduring qualities of myth. Here is an extraordinary poem of that kind from Tom Sleigh's new book, “Space Walk”:
Out in the garden, the wind was like a dog
digging in the snow, digging with its nails
to make a bed to lie down in against the freezing air:
and in my exhaustion, my stupefied numb thought
dug and dug its way down to where I knew
you were--though how could I believe it?
Once, your irony and honesty refused
to let you say, "Oh yes, my son the genius!"
when I showed you a poem-- saying with Groucho deadpan,
as you handed me back the paper, the typed words
already a little smudged: "Hopkins is a good poet."
And then you recited, " Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?. . . " winking
at the poets not yet born . . . poets who would
come after me, poets who would not believe
there was any such woman as you,
who would say of them and their poetry,
shrugging a little, smiling your sly, lopsided grin:
"How old are you, hon? From what I've read,
your sex life must be very important to you."
Digging in the snow, digging with its nails
down deep in the snow, the wind kept trying
to hollow a hole deep enough to escape its own bitter
blowing of snow around the frozen garden.
The casual, good-humored, even detached language of "with Groucho deadpan" does not conceal the fact that this little moment leaves not just a wound, but a scar. The specific dialogue between mother and son, the image of the restless wind churning snow with doglike persistence, the phrase quoted from Gerard Manley Hopkins, the unsettled and unsettling mixture of comedy and wound, communication and rage are elements that have all the tremendous, expansive and universal eloquence of the particular.
—Publishers Weekly (Mar. 2007)
Sleigh (The Far Side of the Earth) has slowly, and justly, won a reputation for his clean-lined, sinewy poems about tough men, wounded bodies and all the forms of strength—intellectual, moral, aural, physical, emotional. His seventh book of verse...may be his saddest and most humane. Stanzas about Homeric violence, and about its modern counterparts, frame understated, nearly tearful depictions of troubled lovers (gay and straight), grieving survivors and the last days of the poet's father, "moving with the clumsy gestures/ Of a man in a space suit—the strangeness of death/ Moving among the living." A Gerhardt Richter painting conjures reincarnations of Hercules, compelled by mean gods to "the fate he must fulfill, slaughtering/ with his club whatever comes into his way"; drag shows suggest obituaries; radio broadcasts look forward to the Earth's end; and the Middle East, ancient and modern, echoes with emblems of oblivion: "We will be covered by the dune,/ and uncovered in time." Body and mind, for Sleigh, must die together, and their mutual sadness, incomprehension and struggle generates each poem. This serious focus, the well-managed ancient Greek analogues and the wrung-out credibility of the best stanzas belong to nobody but Sleigh.
—American Poet: The Jounral of the Academy of American Poets
In his seventh collection...Tom Sleigh speaks out of the disjointed fears and cultural noise of our time in a voice that is clear and hopeful, one that pushes forward with swift urgency....our daily narratives are raised to the level of myth. Sleigh draws poetry’s classical past closer to the present, giving us a contemporary Achilles:
The long, flat, clean-washed beach,
where teenagers used to go surreptitiously to make out,
that’s where he lay—
blood from battle
still caked under his nails...
Seamus Heaney writes, “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.”
Far Side of the Earth
Tom Sleigh's poetry is hard-earned and well-founded. I greatly admire the way it refuses to cut emotional corners and yet achieves a sense of lyric absolution.
In his search for "the promise of meaning," Tom Sleigh's imagery moves deftly from contemporary urban America to the ancient Greek world, from gritty colloquial detail to apocalyptic nightmare, juxtaposing the elevated with the commonplace....These poems...brim and overflow with authority and persuasive energy. In his exact tracking, in his language for death's stalking presence, the poet seems capable (almost) of locating and ensnaring death, but that's not Sleigh's goal. Instead, he succeeds in making, from his ever-inventive and lyrical language, unique vehicles of conveyance.
—American Poetry Review, Robin Becker
Always learned and formally adept, Sleigh, in his fifth collection, revs both diction and syntax to produces his best work yet. Despite the linguistic extravagance, the results are pleasingly transparent...and what might have remained merely virtuosic...attains real depth. A sequence of poems about September 11th asserts the importance of poetry itself...
—The New Yorker
Tom Sleigh's new book...rooted in pentameter (for which he has an excellent feel) and...classical balance....holds everything together by matching his intense emotion with skillfully worked out metaphors...
—The New York Times Book Review, David Orr
With offhand authority and jagged irony, with Latinate elegance in combination with an ear for the contemporary, Tom Sleigh's "Far Side of the Earth" also stakes a claim on the planet of the imagination. Here is a style...quick with vertiginous insight. He...puts forward an obsessive interrogation of language and form, a fearlessness in both honoring and subverting tradition...
—Los Angles Times Book Review, Poets' Corner, Carol Muske
Tom Sleigh's nine-part sequence, "New York American Spell, 2001," which appears in his excellent new book, "Far Side of the Earth," is one of the most genuinely interesting, oblique and forceful post-Sept. 11 poems I've read.
—Washington Post Book World, Poet's Choice, Ed Hirsch
I have along admired the work of...Tom Sleigh and have read [his] work with warm appreciation... Sleigh's lines are...attractive...arresting...requiring nimble-minded readers...deeply thoughtful and finely suggestive and technically accomplished....I...recommend[ing]...them to readers wholeheartedly and without reservation.
—The Raleigh News and Observer, Fred Chappell
In his fifth collection, Far Side of the Earth, the poet has achieved his greatest reach and grasp: these poems span the entire range of American English, just as they traffic between the everyday and the spirit realm... Sleigh is among the very few American poets who have written with both compassion and artfulness about September 11th. In “New York American Spell 2001,” the poet sets images from the 11th beside translated incantations from Ancient Greek and Akkadian....he pushes his artwork toward the very edge of what can be known.
—Harvard Review, Peter Campion
In "Interrogation," an arresting poem about our search for "the promise of meaning" that serves as prologue to Sleigh's cogent and hard-driving fifth collection, he writes that we "tried to make a lens of love," thus establishing a key emblem of the poet's attempt to bring our emotions and metaphysical yearnings into focus.... Sleigh visits the disaster site that was Ur in 2000 B.C.E. just as readily as he roams the dusty, mournful, post-September 11 streets of New York, then glides into Eros' alarming underworld, where pleasure and pain entwine. These are vigorously imagined and skillfully wrought lyric disquisitions on our craving for connection, our hunger to know and be known.
—Booklist, American Library Association, Donna Seaman
Lovers Roman and modern, the dead in ancient Greece and modern Manhattan and the poet's own recovery from life-threatening illness dominate this fifth, and best, volume from Sleigh... Sleigh's descriptions remain clear and his declarations of love heartfelt. It is, however, grief that dominates this carefully calibrated book, which will (at the least) cement Sleigh's reputation as a poet of modern wounds, and may well open him up for larger readerships? or land him a major award.
...Tom Sleigh...throws nouns and verbs in front of himself like an explorer laying down pontoons as he makes his way into the swamp's dim center, toward the great and terrible things to be found there.... What springs from the far side of Sleigh's imagination isn't always easily seen, though it's invariably worth looking for...these poems say there's always something just ahead of us in the mist, something worth chasing even though we'll probably never catch it...
—Boston Phoenix, David Kirby
Sleigh works that strip of thought between believing and its opposite, and if faith can't do the transfiguring, then poetry will. Formally, Sleigh uses design to speed things up... For subjects he favors Heracles, Hephaestos, Charon: in other words, no one from Mount Olympus' ruling class but the fleshy old strugglers who complained about their labors yet undertook them ceaselessly. There is a weary expeditious muscularity to these poems; when the sun appears, it is like a blazing Marvel Comics superhero...who scorches everything and moves on. The flate titles...are like plain wooden trapdoors over the underworld: lift any one of them and one sullen deity or another
will clamber up and shake you until you see stars.
—David Kirby, The New York Times Book Review
During a cultural period in which many artists have seemed inhibited or enthralled by fashionable academic ideologies, Tom Sleigh has persisted in exploring the dominant human themes—death, religion, suffering, love—with impressive resourcefulness and candor. This alone is enough to qualify him as an indispensable contemporary American poet; he does real work in his writing, the work of renewing the nexus of images that link the literal, visible world with the visionary, subtle ones that ordinarily pass by unnoticed and unspoken....Sleigh writes with an unswerving attention to a complex core of dark or obscure emotions—the combination of clarity and enigma that makes poetry memorable, disturbing, and transformative.
—Andrew Frisardi, Boston Sunday Globe
The Dreamhouse...negotiates a fragile truce between the contrarieties of embodiment and absence, a fugitive classical world and a tarnished contemporary one, and the aesthetic impulses toward both form and wildness. It is a book of scope and delicacy....Sleigh's technical skill and unrestrained energy of mind make categories like "open" and "closed" forms seem inadequate to the task of criticism....He has opened up an elegiac space in which meditation is stained with the coloration of grieving, where embodiment hovers in the wings of disappearance.
—Srikanth Reddy, Boston Book Review
In his fourth collection [The Dreamhouse], Sleigh...continues his presentation of mood pieces, perhaps reminiscent of Wallace Stevens but with a deep-set anger and agitation that is purely contemporary...All modern poets are taught to take note of every smallest happenstance around them, but Sleigh's power of observation top any this reviewer has read... Nothing about these poems is direct, yet the digressions are so linguistically marvelous that, if it matters how he got from there to here, we simply read again....Recommended everywhere poetry books are read.
—Rochelle Ratner, Library Journal
From Heracles and Horace to headlights and homelessness, Sleigh's...fourth book of poetry...builds on his familiar strengths: hard-chiseled lines and stanzas mix versions of Greek and Latin prayers and myths, contemporary confessional lyric and portraits of mentally ill urban wanderers whose persistence Sleigh pities and admires. An attentive 11-section sequence about the life, death and immortality of Heracles stands among Sleigh's best work.... Sleigh's Attic clarity adapts almost as well to the barroom and automobile as to the bow and arrow...Sleigh chooses the scarred over the polished, the unadorned over the elaborate, and the sublimely accurate over the beautiful...
—Publishers Weekly 77
Through sheer artistry, Tom Sleigh manages to write...in a transcendent way, and without appeal to the metaphysical assumptions transcendence usually requires. The Chain...floods darkness with brilliant craft.
—Gray Jacobik, Boston Globe
...Sleigh's writing, always lean and spare, seems carved in stone like an ancient alphabet...The Chain is a superb, astonishing book—one of the best I have read in years, rich in poems that deserve to be widely anthologized...
—Susan Mitchell, Agni
In his third book of poems Tom Sleigh achieves a new height for his own considerable art, rich in linguistic pliabilty and invention, myth and history. It is a style at once accessible, verbally muscular, musically engaging, and cathartic; and it is helping to keep open and alive an idiom in American poetry for speaking about our deepest and most human experiences.
—Josh Weiner, Boston Book Review
Tom Sleigh's precision marks him as the diamond cutter of poetry; his verse has a tense musicality, and his ability to convey exact emotions, even the state of consciousness itself, is unerring.
—Best Books of the Year, New York Times Book Review
Tom Sleigh's second book of poems, Waking, is so fine one can hardly do justice to it in a review... The poet is at ease both in and out of forms, and there is a tense muscularity in his music... Mr. Sleigh is nearly as prodigal with his gifts as Yeats...
—Liz Rosenberg, New York Times Book Review
Waking is unflinchingly one of the important dark books of time.
—Susan Stewart, American Poetry Review
It is a pleasure...to come upon Tom Sleigh's first book, After One, in which the musical intricacy of its varied forms corresponds to the precision of emotion and observation... Mr. Sleigh's poetry engages the self just as it engages the physical world that is there to be marveled at, enjoyed and lost. In language that is rhythmic, spare and lucid, he rewards his readers with poems genuinely designed with what Frost called "a good look and a good listen."
—Robert Pack, New York Times Book Review
In After One Sleigh does not allow for convenient distinctions between distance and intimacy, or between formal dazle and intense emotion. The beating human heart that is evoked in these pages is a source of both rhythm and savagery.
—Robert Polito, The Boston Phoenix
Selected reviews of Interview With a Ghost (essays)
In dense and formally playful essays, poet Sleigh (Far Side of the Earth) explores how “private life, historical circumstance, and art converge” and “what it means to say ‘I’ in a poem, in all its psychological, historical, political, and aesthetic ramifications.” In his opening essay Sleigh draws on his own experiences of bodily wasting and brushes with death (he has a chronic blood disease) to read between the lines of Plato’s Phaedo. Another autobiographical essay reflects on his parents’ East Texas drive-in movie theater while analyzing the relationship between technological and poetical thinking; here Sleigh invokes Heidegger, Auden, Lowell and Yeats and recalls memories of his father hooked to a dialysis machine, en route to striking insights into technology, magic and the divine. He traces notions of the self from Anne Bradstreet to Emerson, Whitman and Eliot, noting that “the self in American poetry has usually been dependent on some sponsoring transcendental source.” To richly suggestive effect, Sleigh combines child psychologist D. W. Winnicott’s ideas about infantile absorption in play and T. S. Eliot’s theories of “impersonality” to comment on the act of poetic communication. Sleigh concludes by focusing essays on specific writers and their works, treating among others Frank Bidart, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell and Seamus Heaney.
—Publishers Weekly (Apr. 2006)
What is the meaning of "I" in poetry? In his first collection of prose, poet Sleigh (Far Side of the Earth), who teaches in the graduate writing program at Hunter College, delves into this issue by viewing the writing process from a variety of angles. In the title essay, it is unclear whether Sleigh is the Ghost, the Interviewer, both, or neither. He follows with autobiographical essays discussing his drug use, his incurable blood illness, and his family, all of which has influenced his writing. In the second part of the book, he attacks the idea of an easily knowable first-person narrator, showing how even an ostensibly confessional writer like Robert Lowell shapes and edits the self that is presented to readers. Finally, Sleigh discusses the work of other poets, some overtly confessional, others who tend to conceal themselves. In this readable and absorbing work, he does what any good poetry critic should do-he makes the reader want to read more poetry. Highly recommended for all literature
—Library Journal, Amy K. Weiss, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, April 2006