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About this poet

Tom Sleigh was born in Mount Pleasant, Texas. He attended the California Institute of the Arts and Evergreen State College, and earned an MA from Johns Hopkins University.

Sleigh is the author of several books of poetry, including House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018); Station Zed (Graywolf Press, 2015); Army Cats (Graywolf Press, 2011), winner of the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Space Walk (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award; and Far Side of the Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), winner of an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

He has also published a translation of Euripides's Herakles and two books of essays, The Land between Two Rivers: Poetry in an Age of Refugees (Graywolf Press, 2018) and 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."

Sleigh has also worked as a journalist in Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Kenya, Iraq, and Libya. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, an Individual Writer's Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, and fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among many others. He is a Distinguished Professor in the MFA program at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn.

Selected Bibliography

House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018)
Station Zed (Graywolf Press, 2015)
Army Cats (Graywolf Press, 2011)
Space Walk (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
Far Side of the Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
The Dreamhouse (University of Chicago Press, 1999)
The Chain (University of Chicago Press, 1996)
Waking (University of Chicago Press, 1990)
After One (Houghton Mifflin, 1983)

The Land between Two Rivers: Poetry in an Age of Refugees (Graywolf Press, 2018)
Interview With a Ghost (Graywolf Press, 2006)

Herakles by Euripides (Oxford University Press, 2000)

For a Libyan Militia Member


Once I cleared the chopper’s wapwapwap
the airstrip opened up into a treeless drift of sand
where I heard a distant hammer tap against the wind

and smelled scorched concrete wafting from shellholes
in the runway. Then, we were speeding along
in the back of an open truck,

its axles shuddering over hardpan as I rubbernecked 
at burned-out tanks, turrets blown to the roadside
seeming somehow sadder than the men who died.


Just a boy who played soccer until the revolution,
he learned, with a bad shoulder, to fire an AK-47,
shoot off a mortar so he didn’t burn his hands, talk away fear—

the radio broadcasting endless hero/victim chatter
sent him racing behind a wall, hiding from the sniper’s crosshairs—
pinwheeling shrapnel sent him to the hospital—

where he suffered as much from boredom as his wound.
Playing with a lizard he holds by the tail,
the panting ribs pulse as he dangles it

head down, his bandaged cheek, crisscrossed with tape, looking
like it aches. The hot breeze dries sweat
from his face as the lizard whiplashes loose, scrambling

across the sheet to disappear under the bed,
one wounded foot leaving pinpricks of blood—
not a trail or code, just the tail left dangling

in the boy’s fingers as he laughs and, swinging
it around, shows it to his mother frowning,
What’s that? and snatches it away.


Each time the boy, grown-up now, is forced to flash
ID, his scar tissue’s calligraphy writes on his body
the history of his own scalloped, twisted flesh
shrugging off my pose of objectivity:

shrinking, puckering, the skin grafts on
his burns shine white as phosphorus in the sun:
and whatever I write down, the counter-text
scrawled on his cheek revises itself each time his mouth flexes

into a grin or frown, as year by year whatever’s
written there gets that much harder to decipher,
that much further from the war, until in the mirror
he’ll see and won’t see his own scars.


In the shade and sunlight the lizard grows a new tail
that writes in dust over a broken cobble
its slithering trail until it stops short, heart pulsing in its throat,
red eyes fixed on that foreign shape which takes out

a notebook, scribbles green and brown skin, broken black 
arranged in vertical stripes, claws that look like hands
of a fever victim. And then scribbled notes
in neutral tones about mortar fire, flak jackets,

the strap on the helmet that’s always too loose or too tight,
the boy’s bombed house, shockwaves blowing out
the windows to let in riot gas, an adrenaline rush,
the smell of tears chemical as ammonia, and as harsh.


All around me the sound of men sleeping,
their bodies shifting slightly in their dreaming,
the engines of the trucks still cooling
giving off little ticks and pings.

And then I was climbing out of my blankets to slip under
the tent’s canopy, stumbling away from mumbling and snores,
the desert cold making the dew-damped sand stiffen
so it crunched underfoot as I crept beyond the watchman

to take a piss: and at the edge of the camp, near the chickens
in their coop, heads tucked under wings,
was a fox staring back, or what I though was a fox
ducking down into the shadows and disappearing behind the trucks

that in the morning would obliterate
its precise, four-clawed tracks that the next night
and the next would keep on coming back, until the chickens got
eaten, or the fox was filled. Then pattering of my own piss brought

me back into the cold, the sky overhead dark and bright,
bundled bodies in the dawn beginning to levitate—
whose elbows dreamed up the chokehold? Who pushes back
the boundaries so that no-man’s-land is

the only heimat, homeland, patrie? Who strips us
of our shadows so that our histories turn to glass?
And then it was time for breakfast, to sip tea, smoke,
and take my place beside the others in the truck.

Originally published in House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Sleigh. Used with the permission of the poet.

Originally published in House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Sleigh. Used with the permission of the poet.

Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh is the author of nine books of poetry, a translation of Euripides' Herakles, and a book of essays. 

by this poet

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
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
Out of the stone ark that carried them this far
in their two by two progress up to here,
they've outlived everyone
and everything they've known—

he in his fishscales up to his waist, she
in her grunge hairdo of stone:
and on each face no guilt for surviving,
no stony comprehension

of all they've left behind,