poem index

About this poet

Tom Sleigh was born in Mount Pleasant, Texas. He attended the California Institute of the Arts, Evergreen State College, and earned an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University. His most recent collections include Space Walk (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, and Far Side of the Earth (2003), named an Honor Book by the Massachusetts Society for the Book.

He is the author of After One, winner of the Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series Prize, 1983; Waking (1990), a New York Times Book Review Notable Book, and a finalist for the Lamont Poetry Prize; The Chain (l996), nominated for the Lenore Marshall Prize; and The Dreamhouse (1999), a selection of the Academy of American Poet’s Poetry Book Club and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He has also published a translation of Euripides's Herakles (Oxford University Press, 2000), and a book of essays, Interview With a Ghost (Graywolf Press, 2006).

About Sleigh's work, the poet Philip Levine wrote in Ploughshares: "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."

Seamus Heaney has said of Sleigh’s poems: "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."

Among his many awards are an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letter, the Shelley Award from the Poetry Society of America, an Individual Writer's Award from the Lila Wallace Fund, and grants from the Guggenheim and Ingram Merill Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown where he is a Writing Committee member. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

A Selected Bibliography

Poetry

After One (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983)
Waking (University Of Chicago Press, 1990)
The Chain (University Of Chicago Press, 1996)
The Dreamhouse (University Of Chicago Press, 1999)
Far Side of the Earth (Mariner Books, 2005)
Space Walk (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

Prose

Interview With a Ghost (Graywolf Press, 2006)

Translation

Herakles by Euripides (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Oracle

Tom Sleigh
Because the burn's unstable, burning too hot
in the liquid hydrogen suction line
and so causing vortices in the rocket fuel 

flaming hotter and hotter as the "big boy"
blasts off, crawling painfully slowly 
up the blank sky, then, when he blinks 

exploding white hot against his wincing
retina, the fireball's corona searing 
in his brain, he drives with wife and sons

the twisting road at dawn to help with the Saturday
test his division's working on: the crowd 
of engineers surrounding a pit dug in snow 

seeming talky, joky men for 6 a.m., masking 
their tension, hoping the booster rocket's
solid fuel will burn more evenly than the liquid

and keep the company from layoffs rumored
during recess, though pride in making
chemicals do just what they're calculated to

also keys them up as they lounge behind 
pink caution tape sagging inertly 
in the morning calm: in the back seat, I kick 

my twin brother's shin, bored at 6:10 a.m. 
until Dad turns to us and says, in a neutral tone, 
Stop it, stop it now, and we stop and watch: 

a plaque of heat, a roar like a diesel blasting
in your ear, heatwaves ricocheting off gray mist
melting backward into dawn, shockwaves rippling 

to grip the car and shake us gently, flame 
dimly seen like flame inside the brain confused 
by a father who promises pancakes after, 

who's visibly elated to see the blast shoot 
arabesques of mud and grit fountaining up 
from the snow-fringed hole mottling to black slag 

fired to ruts and cracks like a parched streambed. 
Deliriously sleepy, what were those flames doing 
mixed up with blueberry pancakes, imaginings of honey 

dripping and strawberry syrup or waffles, 
maybe, corrugated like that earth, or a stack 
of half-dollars drenched and sticky...? 

My father's gentle smile and nodding head—
gone ten years, and still I see him climbing 
slick concrete steps as if emerging from our next door

neighbor's bomb shelter, his long-chilled shade 
feeling sunlight on backs of hands, warmth on cheeks,
the brightness making eyes blink and blink...

so like his expression when a friend came 
to say goodbye to him shrunken inside 
himself as into a miles-deep bunker...

and then he smiled, his white goatee 
flexing, his parched lips cracked but welcoming 
as he took that friend's hand and held it, held it 

and pressed it to his cheek... The scales, weighing 
one man's death and his son's grief against 
a city's char and flare, blast-furnace heat melting 

to slag whatever is there, then not there—
doesn't seesaw to a balance, but keeps shifting,
shifting...nor does it suffice to make simple

correspondences between bunkers and one man's 
isolation inside his death, a death 
he died at home and chose...at least insofar 

as death allows anyone a choice, for what
can you say to someone who's father or mother
crossing the street at random, or running 

for cover finds the air sucked out 
of them in a vacuum of fire calibrated
in silence in a man's brain like my father's

—the numbers calculated inside the engineer's 
imagination become a shadowy gesture as in Leonardo's 
drawing of a mortar I once showed my father 

and that we admired for its precision, shot raining 
down over fortress walls in spray softly pattering,
hailing down shrapnel like the fountain of Trevi

perfectly uniform, lulling to the ear and eye
until it takes shape in the unforgiving
three dimensional, as when the fragile, 

antagonized, antagonistic human face
begins to slacken into death as in my own 
father's face, a truly gentle man except 

for his work which was conducted gently too—
since "technicals" like him were too shy for sales 
or management, and what angers he may have had 

seemed to be turned inward against judging
others so the noise inside his head was quieter
than most and made him, to those who knew him well,

not many, but by what they told me after he died,
the least judgemental person 
they'd ever known—who, at his almost next to last 

breath, uncomplaining, said to his son's 
straining, over-eager solicitation, 
—Is there something you need, anything?

—That picture—straighten it... his face smoothing 
to a slate onto which light scribbles what? a dark joke,
an elegant equation, a garbled oracle?

Copyright © 2005 by Tom Sleigh. Previously appeared in Colorado Review. Reprinted with permission.

Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh was born in Mount Pleasant, Texas. He attended the California

by this poet

poem
I had a blueprint
of history
in my head —

it was a history of the martyrs
of love, the fools
of tyrants, the tyrants
themselves weeping
at the fate of their own soldiers —

a sentimental blueprint,
lacking depth —
a ruled axis X and Y
whose illusions
were bearable . . .
then unbearable . . .

In that blueprint
poem
He said, "It is terrible what happens."
           And "So, Mr. Tom,
do not forget me"—an old-fashioned ring, pop tunes,
salsa! salsa! the techno-version of Beethoven's
Fifth, Fairouz singing how love has arrived,
that's what he heard after they dropped the bombs,
his ambulance crawling through smoke while
poem
1
The omen I didn't know I was waiting for
pulled into the station the same instant as the train.
It was just a teenage boy busking on the platform,
cello cutting through garble, Bach's repetitions

hard-edged as a scalpel probing an open wound. 
But then I kept thinking how a sound wave 
travels the path of