Proof of Poetry


I wanted first to end up as a drunk in the gutter

and in my twenties I almost ended up there—


and then as an alternative to vodka, to live


alone like a hermit philosopher and court

the extreme poverty that I suspected lay in store for me anyway—


and then there were the years in which


I needed very badly to take refuge in mediocrity,

years like blunt scissors cutting out careful squares


and that was the worst, the very worst—


you could say that always my life

was like a patchwork quilt always ripped apart—


my life like scraps stitched together in a dream


in which animals and people,

plants, chimeras, stars,


even minerals were in a pre-ordained harmony—


a dream forgotten because it has to be forgotten,

but that I looked for desperately, but only sporadically


found in fragments, a hand lifted to strike


or caress or simply lifted for some unknown reason—

and in memory too, some specific pain, sensation of cold or warmth.


I loved that harmony in all its stages of passion,


the voices still talking inside me…but then, instead of harmony,

there was nothing but rags scattered on the ground.


And maybe that’s all it means to be a poet.



And maybe that’s all it means to be a poet: even as I


lay there trying not to die

in my isolation room’s antiseptic quiet, I could feel


my body getting older and older: I didn’t tell the nurse


about the spider spinning

in the corner of the room between the wall and window


and the oxygen tent I huddled in—


and that’s when poetry came back to me,

the words trembling under


my touch—suddenly the web was mine, I


could crawl over the edge of it, see it thin as it is sideways, look

under—if only the words would talk me


out of my fear, help me decipher the writing


inside my cells like invisible ink showing up inside me

when my sickness holds me over the flames. But as the nausea


climbs into my throat and mouth, I can’t get out of my body—


and when the nausea’s over, I rest my head against

the pillow and the misery gives way


to even deeper misery, though inside it there’s euphoria


too—as if all there was to eternity

is that spider web in the corner,


no furniture, no me,


no other sign of life, its perfected symmetry

that the spider


must intuit, if only in its cells.



Tom Sleigh has published eight books of poetry, a translation of Euripides’ Herakles, and a book of essays. His most recent book, Army Cats, won the inaugural John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has won numerous awards, including the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the John Updike Award and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, an Individual Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace Fund, an Artists Foundation Award in Playwrighting from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Sleigh’s poems frequently appear in the New Yorker and other publications. New poems soon to appear in The New Yorker, Tin House, and Poetry, and work has recently appeared in The Commons, Bellevue Literary Review, Virginia Quarterly Review ( an essay on the situation of Somali refugees that he traveled to Kenya and Mogadishu to write), The Yale Review, Blackbird, The Berlin Journal, the Best of the Best American Poetry, and elsewhere; an interview appeared in the most recent issue of AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle

Issue #35 May 2014
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