The Voice Under the Voice of Every Casual Word: Tom Sleigh’s Army Cats

Mira Rosenthal

Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2011. 96 pages. $15.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In his 2006 book of essays Interview with a Ghost, the poet Tom Sleigh gives us his ideal approach to writing: “to make a poem too messy to be thought of as an artifact, and too wrestled with and considered to be condescended to as process.” Sleigh is describing what he sees as the key lesson younger American poets can learn from Robert Lowell’s poetry. But the description also serves as his answer to the ongoing debate about the place of subjectivity in writing. Sleigh admits to an increasing interest in poetry that is in a constant state of questioning the constructed self, or the “I” of the poem. He describes this kind of poetry as deriving from a “dissonance of feeling” that leads to a complex multiplicity of selves, a kind of “self as self-impersonation” directed by a palpable (and here he is borrowing from John Crowe Ransom) “last ditch ontological maneuver.” In other words, he wants a poem to posit a unitary identity, which then wrestles with that identity, making the poem both considered and messy, both art and process. In Army Cats, his eighth book of poems, Sleigh works hard to do just that.

Some poems in this new collection are ontological studies in and of themselves, such as the poem “Refugee” that describes a disfigured girl playing with a doll. The selves of the little girl begin to multiply through her play:

                                                 she sits there
playing with her doll, telling it to mind her

mind her now, and then smiling at it
with what’s left of her lips as if she were
the mother smiling at the child smiling
back at the mother . . .

The woman she will be tells her that she’s pretty
such a pretty girl, and the child she is
as the mother knows it too, she nods her head
and for that moment the three of them agree.

“Refugee” is the kind of poem we have come to expect from Sleigh. Rooted in a seamless feel for pentameter, it recalls other short third-person studies of moments when the unitary self disintegrates and the mind stops minding its laws of selfhood, such as in “Nobody” from his previous collection Space Walk that describes a friend’s wife who is suffering from mental illness. It was “Nobody” that first drew me to Sleigh’s work and sent me rummaging in his earlier, more narrative collections. In such poems, he achieves an elegant concision, balancing tenderness with an impartiality driven by truth-seeking and fueled by precise metaphor.

But in Army Cats, we sense Sleigh’s awareness of something that is missing in such discrete poems or his earlier narrative work—perhaps the messy quality he describes—and this alertness to the complexity of experience propels him into new, exciting terrain. Comprised of three sections, the book registers Sleigh’s capacious and quirky mind as it investigates various kinds of self-making. I say capacious because of the myriad references to classical figures (Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Caesar) and works of art (a Noh play, the Greek Magical Papyri). I say quirky because of the way he interweaves such weighty cultural material into contemporary experience with a colloquial diction that often elevates the humor of his subject (“little shit friends,” “photo op,” “shitty cell phone video,” “shtick of mourning”). At many turns, Sleigh undermines or interrogates the lyricism that propels these poems until the truths that he arrives at feel solid and real. His voice is trustworthy and at the same time unexpected—a perfect combination of effects that often left me, for one, happily quizzical and eager to reread.

The first section deals primarily with war, both the Lebanese War that broke out in 2007 when Sleigh happened to be working as a journalist in Lebanon, and the Iraq and Afghan wars as experienced obliquely in America. The long prose poem “This Thing of Darkness,” which describes the YouTube video of Saddam Hussein’s execution, stands out as a surprisingly humorous and at the same time devastating investigation into what war makes us do to each other, or how it allows us to distance ourselves from the violence. Sleigh uses the trope of the Renaissance theater to do this:

Whoever is holding the cell phone—and it is my hunch that it is Shakespeare, since who else could write such a scene in which Saddam’s lavish rhetoric and defiant presence could exact from its audience this precise mixture of horror, sadness, joyous vindication, and disgust—seems under constraint to keep the phone hidden from the authorities in the room . . .

Thus transforming the person behind the cell phone, Sleigh goes on to describe the action as if it has been scripted by Shakespeare. “One can already sense him spinning out lines of dialogue,” Sleigh muses, “not the official statements, but what the distracted guards are thinking. . . . ” The set-up allows him to comment on the nature of art and how the imagination runs the risk of distancing us from experience but can ultimately bring us closer. The poem ends with this realization, stated in Sleigh’s raw tone: “Take it from Will Shakespeare, former butcher’s boy and glover, you’ve got to skin and tan [the scene] with your own mind before you can relish it, deplore it”—which is exactly what the poem itself does, giving us the process of Sleigh skinning and tanning the subject. Sleigh wants a poem to be both art and process, and this poem delivers.

Many of the poems that deal with war raise the issue of Sleigh’s right to write about it, both as journalist and poet. “I hope this is the story you are after,” a Lebanese man says at the end of “A Wedding at Cana, Lebanon, 2007.” The latent accusation of selective reporting (sensationalism?) stings, as do Sleigh’s multiple self-vindictive comments in several poems about what makes him “so touchingly American” in his responses to war. Moments like these attest to his interest in questioning the constructed self in his poetry. In the poem “Spell,” which ends the first section, the act of writing about seeing a dead man laid out behind caution tape in Lebanon sends him into a tailspin: “I had no rights in him at all, and yet there I was / in my words’ oily sheen, ready to cover / him over, lave him. . . . ” Here, Sleigh’s writerly ambivalence is heightened to the level of semiotic insecurity. But it is precisely his awareness of such quandaries that make us trust his voice even more, as in the poem “Reporter”:

How sick I’ve been, the infection of hearing voices always
at war . . . soldiers talking the way they do
in sports metaphors, while I shrink myself
to nothing just to feel history and my nothing
come together in the most beautiful fucking
you can’t quite feel—

We are lucky that Sleigh’s insecurities result in such heady lyricism.

The second and third sections show Sleigh’s range of subject matter, from his habitual themes of teenage drug use (“O.D.”) and encounters with homeless people (“Fenix”) to a hilariously vindictive tirade against greed (“Money”). There is a preponderance of poems about death or that question the living’s relationship to those who have died. “Though we hold the dead as closely as we can,” he writes in “For Benny Andrews,” “how far, how wide of where we living are. . . . ” In this preoccupation we can sense, perhaps, Sleigh’s maturation—though other poems counteract it with a sensualist’s love of life. The poem “On First Avenue and Sixth Street” takes us on a wild walk-about around New York City, brought on by one of those days when “the whole world gets down on all fours; if you’re twenty or sixty, you’d do it in an alley, / bodies thrown together— [ . . . ] / and you followed along / in your dog’s instinct for pleasure. . . . ” And the poem “A Woman at a Table” returns to the mode of ontological mediation as it investigates the difference in two people’s experience of sex, concluding that “what she / needs isn’t him / or her or whatever / words they’re / calling out but / the flicker / back and forth of / being hers and / his and hers.”

Army Cats is a dynamic book in which Sleigh sets down his own wrestling with identity, and we are captivated by the multiplicity of selves that emerges. His thematic obsessions culminate in one of the last and most breathtaking poems, “Orders of Daylight,” which posits a theory of the self as permeable or translucent. The poem displays his formal skills at work and leaves us with the kind of dissonance of feeling he desires:

                                               As if whatever
Amnesty is yours is only yours by letting go.
As if regret gave off a gleam like the shaved head of a prisoner.
As if death (or what feels like it) were transparent, a window,

A way of looking through yourself into the heart of day:
And who’s there to meet your eyes but the guy
In his refrigerator box hanging his socks to dry
On a chainlink clothesline, each drop hugging its own translucency.

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