I may or may not remember Tom Sleigh read at the Library of Congress in 1998. I remember then-Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky being introduced as “the Michael Jordan of poetry” and Alan Shapiro reading verse heavily influenced by the Classics but when I come to Tom Sleigh there’s a perforated sheet of translucent paper obscuring my memory. I almost have it. Wait for it…wait for it….Nothing, which is too bad (more for me than you).
This non-memory is appropriate I suppose since Sleigh’s third book of poetry concerns itself with the failings of memory. Sleigh has since produced three more books of poetry, the latest of which, Space Walk, won the lucrative Kingsley Tufts Award for a mid-career poet and has gone on to become my ideal psychedelic dungeon master.
Sleigh has since turned his sights on war and has gone to the Middle East to cover the Lebanese side of the conflict. His interest in war has foundations in his upbringing during the Vietnam War and “partly because it serves as an objective correlative for the vagueness of ‘history.’ War seems to be one of the most important grids against which we measure what it means to be human at any particular moment.”
And then, in perhaps the best statement I’ve read about war as a cultural phenomena: “I think the abstraction of war to a civilian population versus the physical terror and elation it inspires in combatants, and the way those two things get registered by a culture, exaggerated, erased, glorified, demonized, is crucial in knowing exactly what a culture has learned to value.” That could be a one sentence synopsis of Tolstoy’s War & Peace.
According to Sleigh, war was one of the central themes in Far Side of the Earth and it appears with the publication of “Army Cats” in the February 2, 2009, issue of the New Yorker, he’s not finished with the theme and it appears he’s drawing upon his time spent in Lebanon in 2006.
So. The descriptions of the cats and their surroundings are beautiful and serve as a way to focus your I on something innocuous while the real work is being done: Sleigh leads off the poem with “the cemetery next to the CP” and by doing so hooks up military conflict with death but then goes on for the first part largely describing all the freaking cats until the end of the first part where he does this little sleight of hand and all of a sudden one of the cats is an Egyptian god floating down the Nile.
The second part, though visually aresting, is mostly aural, particularly the bit about the tank motors roaring like a cat fuck yowl. And for some reason the description of the cats scattering “through brown brittle grass, the stalks / barely rippling as they pass” reminds of soldiers slipping through rice paddies. Probably because of all the movies about the Vietnam war.
Those two parts serve the third: each of the first two parts held symbols for death; the third part articulates it. Powerfully:
After the last car bomb killed three soldiers
the Army Web site labelled them “martyrs.”
Four civilians killed at checkpoints. Three on the airport road.
A young woman blown up by a grenade.
Facts and more facts . . . until the dead ones
climb up out of the graves, gashes on faces
or faces blown away like sandblasted stone
that in the boarded-up museums’
fractured English “leaves the onlooker
riddled and shaken, nothing but a pathetic gaping . . .”
The amazing thing about this passage is that we have the horrors, the “facts” but instead of looking directly at the dead bodies, Sleigh holds up the image of the destroyed face of an ancient sculpture and quotes the syntactically-odd description from the museum: we have become desensitized to “facts,” Sleigh seems to be saying; power lies in fantastical artifice. We are the onlooker but instead of looking at the ancient figure, we see the dead by the side of the road to complete the hall-of-mirrors effect.
And then, cleverly, Sleigh pirouettes away from the horrors of this war to another ancient war when one side of the world thought cats sacred and where its opponents used the kitties as a defense mechanism. Is Sleigh making an elliptical comment on the notion of the sacred and the absurdities of war or is he cleverly snapping a poem about cats and war with an anecdote about cats and war?