Tom Sleigh

From the Ass’s Mouth: A Theory of the Leisure Class
November 11, 2012 Sleigh Tom

From the Ass’s Mouth: A Theory of the Leisure Class


Up on stage in the three-quarters empty auditorium,

the lights turned down, up where the auditorium resounded

to Midsummer Night’s Dream performed


clumsily by me reading out Bottom’s speech when he turns

from an ass back into a human while the rest of the class

sniggered or flirted, sat back and chewed gum,


the words in the auditorium lived out their hour—

and after rehearsal, when I got on my bike, red bike, fat tires,

to pedal home under cottonwood trees, I turned round corners


I’d never seen in our tiny mountain town,

years and years went by, I was still pedaling—

it wasn’t a dream except maybe in the way logic works in dreams—


I had two heads now, my ass’s head, my human head,

my ass’s bray more eloquent than my human bray

of wonder at my change: The eye of man hath not heard,


the ear of man hath not seen…my stumbling

tongue piecing through Shakespeare’s

bitter oratory about no bottom to Bottom’s dream…


I put my bike in the carport and started throwing

a tennis ball against the brick wall, thinking

over and over, no bottom no bottom


the harder I threw, the more the words

weren’t mine, the ball smashing brick

while there in the auditorium the words


were like a taunt, like Theseus’s

taunts spoken behind my back because I was just

an ass not Duke of Athens: but after the play, the cast


gave me the papier-mache

ass’s head and I kept it first in the room I shared

with my two brothers, putting it on to sniff


the dried glue, feel the claustrophic fit, and stumble

half-blind to the bathroom mirror where I looked

out at myself through holes in the muzzle,


the ass’s painted on eyes and lips what people saw

when they saw me, Shakespeare’s words booming

back from the head’s suffocating hollows


coming straight from the ass’s mouth, not mine.

I don’t remember how, but it ended in an alcove

above the carport where it softened


on the chicken wire, the paper sagged

and began to flake away, the muzzle and the eye-holes

shrivelling into a gray, ulcerous mass—


when we moved from that town it got thrown

into the trash, taken to the dump and burned:

onion eaters, garlic eaters, hard-handed men,


that’s what Bottom and the mechanicals were—

and that’s what I was, what I’ve always been,

riding along on my bike’s fat tires


while that half god half man Theseus

laughs his courteous contempt of us whose

words come out like a tangled chain—which is


why there’s no bottom, why there’s never been

a bottom if you’re just an ass who speaks prose

to the Duke’s verse—an ass who kissed the Queen


of the Shadows and never got over it, my long,

scratchy ears and hairy muzzle pressed

to the ethereal, immortal, almost-not-thereness of her skin.

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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