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’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.