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 is not his most striking, but 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. (Mar.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Space Walkby Tom Sleigh
Space Walk blasts off into realms of experience that show the imagination’s limitless capacity to be both brutal and uplifting. While many of the poems in this daring collection confront head-on our current American realities of empire, state violence, the endless “crisis chatter” of talking heads, and the eerie, weightless feeling of catastrophe
Space Walk blasts off into realms of experience that show the imagination’s limitless capacity to be both brutal and uplifting. While many of the poems in this daring collection confront head-on our current American realities of empire, state violence, the endless “crisis chatter” of talking heads, and the eerie, weightless feeling of catastrophe, they are tethered to the gravitational pull of love and hope.
In Sleigh’s poems, rocket engines and pancake houses, space stations and mom’s kitchen, terrorist organizations and Sundays in a museum are all part of love’s galactic amplitude. Hailing Tom Sleigh’s work, the Los Angeles Times has written that he “stakes a claim on the planet of the imagination.” In The New Yorker’s words, he “asserts the importance of poetry itself,” showing us, in Space Walk, its restorative, recuperative powers.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
My mother and I and the dog were floating Weightless in the kitchen. Silverware Hovered above the table. Napkins drifted Just below the ceiling. The dead who had been crushed By gravity were free to move about the room, To take their place at supper, lift a fork, knife, spoonA spoon, knife, fork that, outside this moment’s weightlessness, Would have been immovable as mountains.
My mother and I and the dog were orbiting In the void that follows after happiness Of an intimate gesture: her hand stroking the dog’s head And the dog looking up, expectant, into her eyes: The beast gaze so direct and alienly concerned To have its stare returned; the human gaze That forgets, for a moment, that it sees What it’s seeing and simply, fervently, sees . . .
But only for a moment. Only for a moment were my mother And the dog looking at each other not mother Or dog but that lookI couldn’t help but think, If only I were a dog, or Mother was, Then that intimate gesture, this happiness passing Could last forever . . . such a hopeful, hopeless wish I was wishing; I knew it and didn’t know it Just as my mother knew she was my mother
And didn’t . . . and as for the dog, her large black pupils, Fixed on my mother’s faintly smiling face, Seemed to contain a drop of the void We were all suspended in; though only a dog Who chews a ragged rawhide chew toy shaped Into a bone, femur or cannonbone Of the heavy body that we no longer labored To lift against the miles-deep air pressing
Us to our chairs. The dog pricked her ears, Sensing a dead one approaching. Crossing the kitchen, My father was moving with the clumsy gestures Of a man in a spacesuitthe strangeness of death Moving among the livingthough the world Was floating with a lightness that made us Feel we were phantoms: I don’t know If my mother saw himhe didn’t look at her
When he too put his hand on the dog’s head And the dog turned its eyes from her stare to his . . .
And then the moment on its axis reversed, The kitchen spun us the other way round And pressed heavy hands down on our shoulders So that my father sank into the carpet, My mother rested her chin on her hand And let her other hand slide off the dog’s head,
Her knuckles bent in a kind of torment Of moonscape erosion, ridging up into Peaks giving way to seamed plains With names like The Sea of TranquilityThough nothing but a metaphor for how I saw her hand, her empty, still strong hand Dangling all alone in the infinite space Between the carpet and the neon-lit ceiling.
To a Wasp on Fifth Avenue on the eleventh anniversary of my father’s death
Your faceted eyes in their huge sockets swivel like an antique pocketwatch’s balance wheel, the street in your stare multiplying to endless avenues of air that you in your lightness
get blown down, each instant an eon as you live out your afternoon inspecting the corner deli’s acid-rain eaten sill, oh to light there beside you in
February’s mumbling dementia . . . In an hour you’ll stiffen, mist locking you in ice until your brash buzz freezes to comet-light, the poison in your stinger held in solution
for the future as you scout the windowpane, your hot plush jacket making the air numb with false spring, as if your flight out of season injected in my vein this dizzying sensation
of space kneeling down to cup us in its palmcan this be you? Will you dare to land, your antennae gently tapping my black-gloved hand, my head a ghost nest ready to loose its swarm,
your stinger quivering just above my wrist in a display of what? fear, joy, our old double-edged trust?
Father wasp, love still potent with pain, in my buzz and burr will you know me as your own?
Redwings cling to cattails while a hammer hammering nails rings an octave higher at each thwack thwack, the overtones decaying deliciously slowly.
And in that decay day presses down on nothing, though the tide spews up old tires gleaming, suppository treasures, plastic smoothed to an abalone shine.
I’m useless as a hammer found floating in the brine, seeming weightless on the sand as if it were that hammer left floating on the moon by a long-dead astronaut:
its lunar existence absently posthumous, it hovers in the ice age night and crematory day.
Its weightlessness would make it nauseous
if it weren’t dumb steel expanding, contractingforever subject to laws it cannot know it doesn’t feel, it exists in a desert so absolute no molecule of rust can taint its shining.
I see your hand reach out to it but it keeps floating away: the steel shank and phallic head drift in the ccushioning void, dreaming of a nail
penetrating a lover’s flesh.
The only other thing moving over the moon’s pitted face is a long-forgotten flag feeding its stripes into the void.
When the moon finally wakes and breaks earth’s orbit it will be younger than the earth, it will take up the hammer and kiss it on the mouth.
Copyright © 2007 by Tom Sleigh. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
Tom Sleigh is the author of seven collections of poetry. He has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lila Wallace Fund, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as numerous awards, including the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Award and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Hunter College.
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