Tom Sleigh

Proof of Poetry
May 9, 2014 Sleigh Tom

Proof of Poetry

 

1

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.

 

2

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’s many books include Station Zed, Army Cats (John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters), and Space Walk (Kingsley Tufts Award). He teaches at Hunter College and works as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa. A book of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees, and of poems, House of Fact, House of Ruin, were published by Graywolf in 2018. Sleigh has published in Plume, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, VQR, APR, Poetry, Threepenny, and elsewhere, as well being widely anthologized in publications such as The Plume Anthology, The Best of the Best American Poetry, the Best American Poetry, and the Best American Travel Writing.