Tom Sleigh

July 22, 2019 Sleigh Tom



At last it’s just me and the alphabet.
No more struggling with the male idea of me,
the wordstrut flicker of the things my gender
and private history keep asking me to say.
So biology and history have both caught up with age:
and what I set out to write, right now, sitting by the deck
of this cruddy pool, at a chain motel just like the ones
we kids longed to stay at on family trips, traveling
to Kansas that one time just after my dad’s dad died,
what I set out to write is reflected back in these pool lights
broken or burning out, flickering up from cracked concrete.
So that the two or three remaining lights seem
to send up frantic, illegible squiggles,
calligraphies of shadows that keep stabbing
like little knives through glints and ripples.
Back then, as a child, the words had come unstuck:
the “he” and “she” of it, the male and female mammal
of it, had gotten all tangled: the dead body
awaiting me, awaiting my dad, kept calling
itself “she” to me, though I knew my granddad
was “boy”: was it that the fear of “it” in me
had stripped him of “he,” so that now “he” was “she”?
And was that out-of-bounds out-of-body place
fluid as this pool water my father promised
he’d teach me in?
But where was he?—
water lights wrapping round me to pull me
down, my arms puny, slapping water,
waiting for his hands to lift me up—but he
let me splash, choking on my own backwash
until somehow I flailed to the deck.
And there my father slept on a lounge chair—
having driven all night, and from time to time
quietly crying to himself in the front seat,
just like a girl, my brothers and I would have said
if we’d been the ones crying… as if the “she”
in him were assaulting the “he” in us
assaulting the “she” back with our giggling disdain,
his eyes looking, as he cried, a little puffy—
just like my mother’s eyes—as if he were becoming
she becoming he and back again.
When I
finally climbed up the pool ladder, the first thing
swimming into my eyes was the rusted-out
warning sign shouting to the low clouds
not words, but blurts and grunts:


And from some place behind my sleeping father
a woman’s voice kept calling out to some other kid,
OK, we gotta go, hurry up will you!

Now, older
than my grandfather when he died, it’s as if
these broken water lights telegraphing an abrupt
dotdot dash dash dash underwater, are signaling
to the future some idea, big or little, the water
can’t quite say—some salt-stung male idea
the alphabet can’t find letters to, floating
me like a grammar it hasn’t yet discovered
and might never—me the verb, me the noun
not yet acting together in this unsexed mouth
of water that once it finds the code will swallow
“me” “he” “she” back down where all words
are drowned, as if they were nonsense
syllables the water tries to fit into this line
and then, when the lights wink out, dissolve.

Tom Sleigh is the author of eleven books of poetry including winner of the 2023 Paterson Poetry Prize The King’s Touch (Graywolf Press, 2022), House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018), Station Zed (Graywolf Press, 2015), and Army Cats (Graywolf Press, 2011). His most recent book of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees (Graywolf Press, 2018) recounts his time as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, NEA grant recipient, and winner of numerous awards including the Kingsley Tufts Award, Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, John Updike Award and Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His poems appear in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Threepenny Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Raritan, The Common, Five Points and many other magazines. He is a Distinguished Professor in the MFA Program at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn, NY.


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