A Traveler to Troubled Lands, Called to Bear Witness
By TESS TAYLOR
MARCH 28, 2018
HOUSE OF FACT, HOUSE OF RUIN
By Tom Sleigh
117 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.
THE LAND BETWEEN TWO RIVERS
Writing in an Age of Refugees
By Tom Sleigh
255 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.
In “Barbarian in the Garden,” the poet Zbigniew Herbert’s collection of essays published in the 1980s, Herbert, fresh out of Cold War Poland, travels around Europe, meditating on food, art and the relationship of culture to torture or violence. He’ll savor Orvieto wine or truffles on village patios before delving into the historic burning of a medieval sect known as the Cathars or the slaughter of bulls commemorated at Lascaux. As Herbert travels across Europe, his essays move in constellation, asking: How do moments of deep human culture relate to moments of deep human violence? How does the history of art relate to the history of torture? These are complex questions. No one would expect a poet to answer straightforwardly. In a world that would like simple answers, Herbert evades simplicity.
The ingredients of Herbert’s essays rose up for me again as I read Tom Sleigh’s linked and intertwined new books — one of memoir and reportage (“The Land Between Two Rivers”), and one of poems (“House of Fact, House of Ruin”). Like Herbert, Sleigh is a deliberate traveler in the troubled world. Rather than unearth the deep cruelties of European history, Sleigh leaves the confusions of 21st-century America to visit some of the world’s hot zones: Kurdistan, Mogadishu, rural Lebanon, Nairobi. Sometimes he’s conducting poetry workshops; sometimes he’s dealing with cultural attachés or smooth-tongued diplomats; sometimes he’s face to face with refugees in camps. At all times his mission is also to be present with his own body, with others, and with the notebook whose contents he will eventually weave into essays and poems that feed one another, sometimes cannibalizing one another line for line, joke for joke.
In Herbert’s title, there was a sly pun: Herbert, the Pole, was the barbarian; Europe was the garden. Sleigh’s garden is Qana; the Lebanese town where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine, now the site of two particularly devastating Israeli bombings; and also Baghdad, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, cradle of civilization, now the violence-ridden capital of Iraq. In writing from parts of the world that are all too often refracted in what Sleigh calls “crisis chatter” or “disaster porn,” he wants to investigate what it means to be present among others who are more often than not perched on some precarious verge. Yet as Sleigh makes clear, he’s also uncomfortable with what might be called “the poetry of witness” or with any overweening formulation of “speaking for the voiceless.” When called upon to explain what he’s trying to do, Sleigh, who has spent much of his adult life too sick to travel in this way, or to practice the craft of journalism he so admires, talks about wanting to learn from the “negative capability” of journalism. By this he means getting close enough to a complex thing to suspend any agenda except for detail, observation, texture, note-taking. Obviously, Sleigh cannot help having a vantage, a prejudice, a body, but he also wants to follow both his watching mind and his language where they lead.
Like Herbert, Sleigh often explores the hair-trigger balance between culture and chaos. Like Herbert, who began an essay on human brutality by savoring truffles, Sleigh often lingers over food as the base form of pleasure and culture by which we create and sustain human peace. Sleigh revels in the moment in Jordan when a skilled Syrian refugee finds a new life as the baker of a honeyed bird’s-nest pastry called kenafeh. He’s drawn to the moment when a formerly listless child in Mogadishu perks up and begins “playing with the shiny wrapper of a nutritional biscuit he’d just eaten” and the moment in the relative calm of Kurdistan when he and a friend “stood in line with everyone else helping themselves to the abundance of local cheeses, baklava and other honeyed pastries.” In Sleigh’s hands these moments of ongoingness mix something of the daily with something of the miraculous. As he points out, “people — even people threatened by drought and starvation — have to get on with their lives.” Yet he also notes when they can’t, as at a field outside Qana where oranges cannot be harvested because the ground is still seeded with bombs. In a poem called “Before Rain” (which might as easily have been called “After Ruin”), Sleigh writes: “Trees grow up where there once were people, weeds / take over beds of lettuces and coddled flowers, / uprearing mole hills unpopulate the fields.” As he observes in the next line, “the bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down.” Sleigh is after the enormously fragile ways that even in the face of war or famine people do get on, even while at any moment survival, that most fragile of luxuries, might just as easily end.
As a poet-journalist traveling through war zones, Sleigh also has a distinct precursor in Walt Whitman, who in traveling to Civil War hospitals and battlefields filled his notebooks with dispatches that would later become the essayistic poems “Drum Taps” as well as the impressionistic essays in “Specimen Days.” In his poetry and his prose, Whitman was exploring novel forms of writing in a new democracy — a language of access, of one body witnessing another in shared space. Like Whitman, Sleigh here plays with what the observer’s notebook can become. He embeds lines of poetry in journalistic essays like a rogue reporter; conversely, he’ll forge a sonnet or rhymed tercets out of reported language, as he does in poems that incorporate the testimony of Tony Lagouranis, who witnessed the torture at Abu Ghraib. Sleigh doffs his hat to Whitman expliciitly, noting in one poem that he’s practicing “with Whitman a raw / form of brinksmanship.”
If Sleigh’s brinksmanship is about drawing near to lives at the verge, it is also about trying to record the narratives by which lives come to have meaning, and finding the language in which we come to understand what Sleigh calls “the soul’s vulnerable republic.” Sleigh’s cross-pollinating forms remind us that language, too, is always being deployed to some purpose. In the face of propaganda, political backlash and crisis chatter, which stories allow us to become human to one another? Just outside Qana, Sleigh listens to a man named Joseph, who was asked to recover the shattered bodies of small children after the most recent bombings. At that moment, they see in the rubble the “gleaming, flesh-colored, plastic thigh and leg of a baby doll.” The image is chilling.
Later, meditating on this experience, Sleigh mulls the words of Robert Frost, who said that politics is “an extravagance about grievances, and poetry is an extravagance about grief.” In Frost’s formulation, the divisions at first seem clean. The politics of grievance face outward, acting publicly, while poetry turns inward to attend to our private landscapes of sorrow. Yet look more closely, and things become murky. To which realm do Joseph’s memories of the shattered bodies of the lost girls and the still-present doll belong? To what realm do they belong when Sleigh tells us Joseph’s story?
Most of us live and breathe between the scales of so-called political and so-called private life; the languages we speak shift depending on circumstances. Late in his essay collection, after Sleigh has recounted his travels, he shifts registers. He describes some of the sources of his own grief — about his parents, who felt coerced into uncomfortable business dealings in the segregated South, and especially his mother, whose electroshock treatments left her uneasily adrift from the self she’d been before. He describes his own illness. How might these things forge a politics, a poetics, an imagination? Sleigh has made a project of trying to write about other lives under pressure, at the brink. He’s also watching himself watching, wondering how to read the longings and sorrows that urge him, the watcher, on.
Tess Taylor is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection “Work & Days.”