Tom Sleigh's books include After One, Waking, The Chain, The Dreamhouse, Far Side of the Earth, Bula Matari/Smasher of Rocks, and a translation of Euripides' Herakles. His book of essays, Interview With a Ghost, was published in spring, 2006, by Graywolf Press. His new book of poems, Space Walk, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in spring, 2007. Among his many awards are the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, an Academy of Arts and Letter Award in Literature, an Individual Writer's Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College.

Space Walk
Far Side of the Earth: Poems
Interview with a Ghost
AGNI Interview

Four Poems by Tom Sleigh

Space Station

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, spoon—
A 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 look—I 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 vain, 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 space suit—the strangeness of death
Moving among the living—though the world
Was floating with a lightness that made us
Feel we were phantoms: I don't know
If my mother saw him—he 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 Tranquility
—Though 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.

[First publication in Threepenny Review
Collected in Space Walk, Houghton Mifflin, March 23, 2007]


Line after line smearing off into elephantine
scrawls as she tries to recall which way
the pencil goes, my friend’s wife who can’t organize
her mind to spell out her name sits staring

at the bookshelf bowed under the weight
of the thousand thousand rivulets of print
she can’t remember writing. Her mind keeps scabbing
over—and then she picks it and picks it

until it bleeds…and she’s herself again,
her heart rejoicing that she’s Anne and not
someone other who afflicts her like a stranger

hiding in her bedroom, whispering with affable,
red—faced jocularity that if you’re nobody
and nobody’s tormenting you why do you cry out?

[First published in The New Yorker
Collected in Space Walk, Houghton Mifflin, March 23, 2007]


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?

[First published in Colorado Review
Collected in Space Walk, Houghton Mifflin, March 23, 2007]

The Breeze
                                                        for Ed Robbins

Like code for a lover’s murmurings, MIA IED blew in
              on the breeze from some place other than the place
of pleasure I remember, bower too far ever

to get back to now in the alphabet war war was waging…
              The language of that breeze was fluent, calming,
its coolness almost chill but hoarding July heat

that would turn the dunes to an abstract shimmer
              jets from the base would penetrate, disappearing
an instant before piercing through glare, wings

tilting sunlight toward flattening ocean,
              a TV on somewhere down the leafy lane shrilling
a siren the breeze altered, catching it up, softening it

to almost human keening, though for what or who
              the breeze wasn’t saying: how disjunct it felt, the breeze
blowing some memory of distant pleasure mingling

with pleasure now of a body next to mine—my weirdness
              of thinking, as the breeze cooled my flank, of my friend
putting on his helmet and Kevlar vest, fitting the Kevlar

with a lover’s gesture up between his legs so the family jewels
              would be locked away, and hearing him joking
this was the way the middle-aged of either sex ought always

to dress to go out to the bars, this was the way what
              the breeze wasn’t saying and what my friend was
by not saying it, this was the way the acronyms

MIA IED partook of the breeze’s other murky meanings—
              not saying what my friend would later show me,
all of it coming together so confusedly

but as if the breeze were words the acronyms
              spelled out before there were conditions to bring them
to the tongue rooting them in air, letter on letter

opening and flowering—oh come off it, fuck it, stop
              all this deployment of flowers and figures
to get around what was right there on the ground,

the glistering strangeness of it lying in the sun, skull cap
              blown off, thick black luxurious hair of a suicide
bomber, like a wig hung in a well-dressed window in one

of the salon-type places in an opulent mall, hair
              a breeze rippled ever so slightly, first this
hair, that, lifting, subsiding, the breeze stroking forelocks

and tresses that nestled on the shoulders minutes
              before my friend took the video—that breeze was blowing
across desert and ocean all the way to here, if only

in my mind thinking to join that soughing to this feeling
              of naked flanks cooling after waking a few inches
away, breeze flowing in the space between

cooling that place I wanted to get back to when the poem began
              but will never enter except in words the breeze does
or doesn’t understand, Missing In Action, Improvised Explosive

Device taking on the aura of words the breeze spoke
              eons ago but before there was something like a war
to give them such repletion and ardor.

[First publication in Threepenny Review
Collected in Space Walk, Houghton Mifflin, March 23, 2007]