Tom Sleigh

Old Man Swimming
July 23, 2022 Sleigh Tom

Old Man Swimming


When the Old Man of the Sea shapeshifting on the bottom
felt gliding over him the shadow of the very
first boat, he stared up at the hull, sensing his time
would soon be over. Now that I’m nearly


an old man, I watch my shadow slide over an old real estate
sign torn in two and feel almost exhilarated
that the water that buoys me up
drags me down. Limbs and boulders leap


from murk and blur, clouds in the water
turn to pillars of fire as receding
behind me face after face of every face I’ve ever worn


is doomed to keep transforming
until every last emotion I ever felt has been
made clear, then disappears, water into water.


A mangled piece of metal flashing up from muck
reminds me of the masks, the curved metal cheek
fitted over naked bone, that soldiers
used to wear after the Great War,


the prosthetic face painted to match
the undamaged flesh right down to the cheek’s
shaven, bluish tinge, the mask as lifelike
as it was lifeless—and yet that was enough—


so that one man wrote his mask-maker:
“Thanks to you, I still have a home.
The woman I love no longer


finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do. It even seems
to me that sometimes I can feel
a breeze touching my cheek as if it were real.”


Sun tremor in the reeds, subtle
underwater shocks slowly spreading
across the surface of the lake. Your own double
consciousness doubling back, accusing, flattering,


insinuating no plea for innocence will be
allowed. The night bombs fell, the factory
exploding, the cop in his riot gear
talking into his walkie talkie, the scar


on your own cheek flashing in the light. The breeze
freshens and blows the water into scallops,
peaks cresting, subsiding…the wind drops,


the water glasses off, the sheen
hurts your eyes, you swim away from the blaze
into more blaze spreading on and on to the horizon.

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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