The AK wants to tell a different truth
a truth ungarbled that is so obvious
no one could possibly mistake its meaning.
If you look down the cyclops-eye of the barrel
what you'll see is a boy with trousers
rolled above his ankles.
You'll see a mouth of bone moving in syllables
that have the rapid-fire clarity
of a weapon that can fire 600 rounds a minute.
Station Zed is the terminal outpost beyond which is the unknown. It is also the poet Tom Sleigh's finest work. In this latest collection, Sleigh brings to these poems his experiences as a journalist on tours of Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Libya. But these are also dispatches from places of grief, history, and poetic traditions as varied as Scottish ballads and the journeys of Basho.
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About the Author
Tom Sleigh's books of poetry include Army Cats, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Updike Award, and Space Walk, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award. He is also the author of Interview with a Ghost. He teaches at Hunter College in New York.
Praise for Tom Sleigh
"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." Seamus Heaney
"Sleigh has been publishing formidable poetry for almost thirty years, and among American poets of his generation there is no one better." David Wojahn, Tikkun
"An indispensable contemporary American poet." The Boston Globe
"What delights me most is seeing a poet of [Sleigh's] accomplishments and his large and well-earned reputation . . . pushing into greatness." Philip Levine, Ploughshares
Read an Excerpt
By Tom Sleigh
GRAYWOLF PRESSCopyright © 2015 Tom Sleigh
All rights reserved.
Homage to Mary Hamilton
I'm driving past discarded tires,
the all night carwash dreams
near Green-Wood Cemetery where
the otherworld of Queens
puts out trash—trash of Murder, Inc.,
trash of heartbeat
in recycled newspapers where
Romeo and Juliet meet.
So much thorny underbrush,
so much ice overgrowing
my windshield until frost shields a buck
behind a billboard forest
selling someone's half-dressed daughter.
She melts into the defroster
roaring like the rich guys' helicopters
at the Wall Street heliport,
rotoring down through skyscrapers
where torchsong lipstick smears
onto a handkerchief and starched collar.
But in my face snow blizzards
up from sixteen-wheelers and
three crows clot against limbs
downswooping, omen of the augurs
that steers the desperate lovers
to a crossroads, right here. And where mobsters
and suicides lie buried
and the radio breaks into a ballad
of Mary Hamilton's fair body,
but who's tied it in her apron
and thrown it in the sea,
I'm the quake and shortlived quiver,
the laughter and fractured tale
of her night in the laigh cellar
with the hichest Stewart of a'.
Oh, she's washed the Queen's feet
and gently laid her down
but a' the thanks she's gotten this night's
to be hanged in Edinbro' town.
I'm sitting behind the wheel
of our mutual desire
when the heel comes off her shoe
on the Parliament stair
and lang or she cam down again
she was condemned to dee:
but the instant the news comes on
and drones spy down
on our compulsions, her hands
under my hands wrestle
on the wheel as my foot taps
the brakes, her foot the gas
when out of the gliding dark
I spot his velvet rack.
Last night there were four Toms,
today they'll be but three:
there was Tom Fool, Sweet Tooth Tom,
Tom the Bomb, and me.
A Short History of Communism
and the Enigma of Surplus Value
My grandfather on his Allis Chalmers WC tractor, a natural
who hated Communism, is an example of Marx's proletariat,
though nothing near in his own mind what Marx meant by the masses—
musing in his messianic beard, Marx intuited the enigma
of surplus value that my grandfather understood
from a cutter bar and threshing drum driving into the future
as the combine harvester, thus increasing the bushels
he could harvest each hour, thus increasing his hourly productivity
for each minute expended of muscle foot pound power—
but Marx didn't foresee, exactly, that the tractor
would develop into a techno Taj Majal, complete
with safety glass cab, filtered AC, a surround sound system
that could rival Carnegie Hall or blast Led Zeppelin
at decibels that left your ears dazed, easily drowning out
the invincible tractor's roar—and the hydraulics, so swift
you could lift the discs with a touch—and all this,
in the old man's mind, contrasting with the tractor
he put me on to learn, a four stroke with a crank you had to turn,
cursing and turning until it shook itself and shook itself
like a drunk with the DTs, until clearing the mystification
of its hallucinated roles, the tractor refused to sing the song
of its own reification and hiccuped and lurched into the real.
I'd climb onto the iron seat with a threadbare pad
that made my ass sweat, a jug of iced tea wrapped in burlap,
a bandana knotted to keep dust out of my mouth, goggles
snapped onto my face like an ideologue's dream so that I saw
the fields foursquare as I contour-plowed acre after acre
unfolding before me with such dialectical rigor
that the ground of being would hold still forever, never blowing
into reactions of horizon-shrouding dust whipped by the hot winds
Such a theory Marx made to argue the enigma into sense—
and not just for himself but for the eponymous masses!
But my grandfather's big nose and wary drinker's eyes keep breaking
the mask and posing an alternative enigma: what if his surplus value
led him not to solidarity with the worker but made him into a Kulak
who must be killed? So the locomotive pulls out
of the Finland Station, so the colors red and white
make uniforms for themselves: Lenin. Trotsky.
Moth-eaten Czar Nicholas. Technicolor Rasputin.
The ones who stood in front of Kresty Prison
for three hundred hours. But the colors saw them coming—
and wore the ones who wore them to rags.
But fast forward a hundred years, my grandfather dead for fifty,
and there, in a window on Fifth Avenue, the enigma
hides itself in the headless, sexless torso of a mannequin
as a fly lands on its finger, the window shattering
to a thousand windows in the lenses of its eyes.
And all the while the enigma, like the embalmed body of Lenin,
keeps on breathing through his waxworks face.
The Parallel Cathedral
The cathedral being built
around our split level house was so airy, it stretched
so high it was like a cloud of granite
and marble light the house rose up inside.
At the time I didn't notice masons laying courses
of stone ascending, flying buttresses
pushing back forces that would have crushed our flimsy wooden
But the hammering and singing of the guilds went on
outside my hearing, the lancets' stained glass
telling how a tree rose up from Jesse's loins whose
flower was Jesus staring longhaired from our bathroom wall
where I wanted to ask if this was how he looked for real,
slender, neurasthenic, itching for privacy
as the work went on century after century.
Fog in cherry trees, deer strapped
to bumpers, fresh snow marked
by dog piss shining frozen in the day made
a parallel cathedral unseen but intuited
by eyes that took it in and went on to the next
thing and the next as if unbuilding
a cathedral was the work
that really mattered—not knocking
it down, which was easy—
but taking it apart stone
by stone until all
that's left is the cathedral's
outline coming in and out of limbo
in the winter sun.
All through childhood on eternal sick-day afternoons,
I lived true to my name, piling dominoes
into towers, fingering the white dots like the carpenter Thomas
putting fingertips into the nail-holes of his master's hands.
A builder and a doubter. Patron saint of all believers
in what's really there every time you look:
black-scabbed cherry trees unleafed in winter,
the irrigation ditch that overflows at the back
of the house, chainlink of the schoolyard
where frozen footsteps in the snow
criss-cross and doubleback. And now the shroud falls away
and the wound under his nipple seeps fresh blood.
And when Jesus says, Whither I go you know,
Thomas says, We know not ... how can we know the way?
Songs for the Cold War
The sidelong whiplash of his arm sent the boomerang
soaring, pushing the sky to the horizon
until the blade just hung there, a black slash on the sun
so far away it seemed not to move at all
before it came whirling back larger and larger:
would it hit him, would he die—and you ducked down,
terrified, clinging to his thigh, its deathspin
slowing as it coptered softly down and he snatched it
from the air. How you loved that rush of fear,
both wanting and not wanting him to feel how hard
you clung, just the same as when he'd float you
weightless across the pond while waves slapped
and shushed and bickered, his breath loud in your ear ...
and after he dried you off, he'd lift you onto his shoulders
and help you shove your head through a hole in the sky.
The first time I let loose the handlebars
and the bike steered itself, fat tires balancing
on their spinning hubs, the sky came closer
to the ground, the mountain slope receding
at the far end of the street was an exercise
in three-point perspective. One point was the bike
carrrying me along through an infinitely
narrowing alley of shrinking box elder trees,
the second was a bird's eye foreshortening the slope,
while the third loomed way up high where blinking
satellites passed by, some shadowy sky-presence
that knew depth and height together,
knew my knees pumping the pedals and my hands
down at my sides countering the breeze in the now
now now now of my swaying in the balance.
3/ BOMB SHELTER
There was a Bay, there was a Pig, there was a Missile.
There was a Screen, there was a Beard talking loud talk
in Spanish, there was the Screen in English calling him Dictator.
There was the floor of the room, a checkerboard
of brown and white squares, there were Moves
that were the right ones, and Moves that meant War.
There was a Bomb Shelter rumored to have been built
by a church elder across town. There was Radiation
that let you see the bones of your foot in the shoestore.
There was a Hot War at school where mean kids beat up
Weegee Johnson's brother, and there was a Cold War
that meant everyone would die. The cat kneaded
your mother's lap. The dog let loose a growling sigh.
The Pig kept squealing in the Bay, the Missile sweated,
the Screen counted down to zero and turned static.
4/ DUST RAG
What was Jesus writing in the dust? The magic hand
of Jesus writing something down? Maybe what would happen next
to you and her as she sat there beside you on the naugahyde
and cried and Jesus kept on writing until a great stone
rolled down on him from Heaven and crushed him?
The Bible didn't tell you so but Jesus was the stone, Jesus
was the President riding in the car, Jesus was the holes
in the President's throat and head, Jesus was the television
floating down from out of Heaven that brought to you
the bullets and the horses dragging the coffin
to be buried in the red letters of Jesus' words
bleeding on the black and white skull of the President.
She cried on the couch and you sat there watching
Jesus writing in the dust like the dust you wrote
your name in before the dust rag came along and wiped it out.
"Elephant stomp" meant you stomped your marble
with your heel until it was buried level with the earth.
If you felt brave enough you played for "keepsies,"
if you doubted your concentration you called
"quitsies" and if you wanted to come close
or get away you called "giant steps." Contingency
dictated "bombsies" when you stood up straight
and from the level of your eye looking right down
to your target you called out "bombs away."
No one liked to lose a "clearie" or a "steelie"
and nothing teachers said about fair play
reduced the sting and shame and anger:
your bag's size waxed and waned, adrenaline
pumped all recess, you were acquisitive,
sharp-eyed, pitting vision against gain and loss.
"Upsy elbows and straights" meant you had to keep
your arm straight and with your shooting hand
snug against the inside of your elbow you'd cock
your thumb, shooter gritty with dirt, and take aim
at your opponent's marble. Calculations went on
that made time and space purely malleable,
sudden vectors of intention taking over
from the sun so you were seeing it as if
foreknown, though the sharp little click glass on glass
put to the test Zeno's paradox: in the just
before not quite yet never to be realized
consummation, you grew a long white beard,
you outlived the earth and all the stars and never
would you die as long as you kept measuring
the space between the cat's eye and your eye.
What could I say, a laborer, to the overseas geniuses?
That my father fought their war against the Japanese?
That the leisure class I served I aspired to, so I could join
the high G of the cello floating off, slowly vanishing
in a pianissimo fermata? Then nothing more,
silence and night? But this was California,
and soon the heat pump and water filter
would strain the water to such a blueness and temperature
that acid-washed LA would go swimming night and day,
the blue havens built by alambristas, union bricklayers, unskilled
teaching me the Faustian accounting
of my employer, Bob "Just Call Me a Genius" Harrington:
Screw 'em out of this, screw 'em out of that,
but sweep up your mess and you'll get
away with murder. Sucking up the slurry of cement
and sand, the hose pulsed in the pit
of the parvenu, the ingenue, the Hollywood producers
and Van Nuys GM bosses whose assembly-line crews
riveted my beat-up Firebird's body, Wolfman Jack's XERB
taking another little piece of my heart now, baby,
as I sprayed gunite on rebar ribs and the air compressor
pounded like the other Firebird: Stravinsky taking his temperature
in West Hollywood, Schoenberg watering his lawn in Brentwood,
Mann perched above the waves in Pacific Palisades
had also perused catalogs weighing concrete vs. vinyl
as blast caps detonated in holes the demmies drilled
and ash sifted down over my face and shoulders
to post-war twelve tone assaulting my ears.
But while I and my transistor radio worked ten hour days,
my father dreamt our own little South Seas grotto:
every weekend we rose to the promise of chlorination
as he and "us boys" dug trenches for our water lines,
hacked away the hillside to make our ice plant grow,
and rented the monster backhoe
digging out the pool pit to rim it with lava stone
against the mud. My father waved the baton
of his shovel to light the fuse to the chord
of dynamited stone: the cloud of our need
went up all over California
and rang in overtones all through me.
The two detectives prowling at the edges of my dream are late—as usual. Already I'm being pushed toward the cliff edge, driven not by a gunman or a maniac, but by wanting to escape my betrayal of a friend—a serious betrayal, worth thirty pieces of silver. On all the talk shows, they talk about how I lie, about my need for attention and how no stunt is too low to get it. But when they tell how I sold out my friend, my dismissal of kindness and decency, like leaving your wife when she has cancer, the shame is too much. Off the cliff I fall, until the ground looms up, and the detectives come running—the man wearing the years-long death mask of detachment, the woman, who's only been dead a few days, the mask of death as disillusion. And in their eyes, there's something so heartbroken, so lonely! As if their work as detectives, almost sacred in their minds, had been made into a sideshow by bad actors on TV, and I was their last chance—muffed again!—to prove to the world what was good and true in being a real detective. And so to make them feel less defeated, I start to lie, denying I betrayed her.... And the veiled triumph in the man's eyes at having caught me in my lies look like my father's eyes, so that I know just what he's feeling when he reaches to take his partner's hand—a hand so like my mother's that when she reaches to take mine, I recognize her passionate avowal undercut by wariness, sounding the same as in life: We'll stand by you, she says, her cool grasp assuring me that they know I know that all I'm pretending they don't know we all know, but look, that's OK, we're family, aren't we? a family of detectives?
Excerpted from Station Zed by Tom Sleigh. Copyright © 2015 Tom Sleigh. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Homage to Mary Hamilton, 5,
A Short History of Communism and the Enigma of Surplus Value, 8,
The Parallel Cathedral, 10,
Songs for the Cold War, 12,
The Craze, 17,
"Let Thanks Be Given to the Raven as Is Its Due", 20,
The Animals in the Zoo Don't Seem Worried, 24,
The Twins, 26,
Homage to Zidane, 31,
Refugee Camp, 33,
Homage to Basho, 53,
Homage to Vallejo, 73,
Global Warming Fugue, 77,
From the Ass's Mouth: A Theory of the Leisure Class, 82,
The Negative, 86,
Party at Marquis de Sade's Place, 88,
Proof of Poetry, 96,
Dogcat Soul, 98,
Prayer for Recovery, 99,
Second Sight, 100,
Songs for the End of the World, 101,