Tom Sleigh

Portrait of My Father as a Snake
October 24, 2023 Sleigh Tom

Portrait of My Father as a Snake


From a description of a Greek funerary relief, First Century BCE: “The man sets an example by feeding a serpent, who is none other than the deceased, now a good spirit to be fed by his survivors.”

—A History of Private Life, Paul Veyne


1/Shed Skin


I was dead. The hospital around me
pinged and beeped, and though I lay
on my bed, the nurses and doctors couldn’t


see me. I kept saying to myself, Why doesn’t
somebody come? And then the feeling changed,
and I was climbing and climbing crumbling stairs,


breathing hard but enjoying it, the moss between
the brick slick and such a deep green
that I knew I was a boy again.


My dead father waited for me at the top
where he lay coiled round and round himself
just like the little green garden snake


we found frozen one morning on the front step
during a late spring cold snap.
He’d been trying to shed his skin


but somehow he’d gotten stuck part way in
and out of his old body. He looked perplexed,
his tongue tasting the air, flicking


across his thin snake lips, listening
through his tiny snake ears to my breath
coming closer, his eyes seeming disappointed


as if it were my fault that he hadn’t gotten farther.
I picked him up, he writhed up my arm
and coiled around my neck and lay


quiet, waiting, cold against my shoulder.



2/Heel and Head


Feeding a snake as it twines around my arm and flickers its tongue at me reminds me that the snake is my dead father—his spirit turned to a happy snake whereas in life he was, at best, a hedged-in creature, one that found release in doing what my mother told him back then when she had a mind, a will that she could herself decipher and translate to him as he slithered along the kitchen floor, wreathed around her ankle and looked up at her with fixed snake eyes, docility and devotion and a suppressed erotic shyness in the voluptuous folding and unfolding of his coiling length travelling slowly up her thigh.


Until she met my father, my mother’s experience of snakes was of rattlers lying stunned in the spring cold of the dusty High Plains street in a town so tiny you could drive right through at night and not even notice it was there. But she was smart and tough, my mother—and she never had the gullibility to think that Eden wasn’t full of snakes and that Adam and Eve weren’t complicit in their own Fall.


Have you considered the serpent-glitter coming off a river about to overflow?


Have you run from a dream meteor falling so slowly it streaks into a long shining sinuous arrow?


An arrow like a snake aimed at a woman’s heart, a girl’s heart really, since he rode her to school when they were both fifteen on the handle-bars of his bicycle?


In those days he was just a boy with big ears, a shy, non-aggressive boy with a chinless snake face so harmless and innocent that his love for my mother seems fated as in a fairy-tale—


and all the damage of marriage, of me and my brothers, only comes in later when copulation feeds into lust and the baby snakes wait to hatch and turn into serpents destined to bruise his heel as his heel is destined to crush their heads.


My dear dead father was both heel and head.





He licks my ears at night with his flickering tongue, telling me the little secrets of the dead: where I lost my Willie Mays baseball glove. Where the cats’ eye marble rolled. Why the snakeskin nailed to my little cork board, papery and lovely in its lozenges of yellow-gold, so disturbed my mother that she came into my room one night and, as I slept, took it in her two fists and crushed it, tore it to pieces and left it scattered on the floor.


Oh Mother who married his snakinesses’ coiling writhe and subtle wriggle in its long slack-bellied slithering down, return me to the hour when you first noticed his long narrow winding trail arrowing through the dust.


And forgive me, Father Snake, for telling this on her, on you—and let me feed your hissing spirit from my fingers as your child should.



4/Like Father Like Son


His “self-tormenting literalism” meant my dad
couldn’t believe that he was dying.


Dying meant only that he was recovering
more slowly—until one day shortly before the end,


he sat in a chair, his head in his hands,
and kept saying over and over, “Why did I do this?”


What did he mean, what was the “why”,
what was the “did”, what was the “this”?


Allow himself to be born was too abstract
or else too obvious; or why it should be him


having to die this way slow day by day
too self-pitying—besides, at that moment


that he hunched in his chair, he was marooned
in his own exhaustion, unreachable, immune


to any thoughts of mine sent out like probes
into intergalactic voids that were swallowed


by the void he orbited inside, balancing
in his chair next to the refrigerator and his last meal—


a hot dog he couldn’t keep down so that
he gave the rest to his little white dog


pricking up her ears, hearing something
we couldn’t hear as he patted her head, her eyes


narrowly searching his—but for what? None of us
knew, none of us had the faculties to know.


So he lay there in the bed we’d rented for him,
staring sightless up at us, who kept fading


and swimming back into focus, then fading out
into a haze rising off the waves just beyond


the condo he’d been lent to die in.
Whatever was going on inside him,


he couldn’t tell us. Twenty-three years
since his death and now the bed and bedrails


are that much closer to being mine.
Dad, I want to say to him, I’m fucking tired


of all this dying. And then my father stops
breathing and I slither up the bed frame


and twine around the rails, my scales
chill as the steel, my tongue flickering, tasting


his body’s failing heat as blood settling in
his earlobes turns bluish, purplish, almost black.


And if I weren’t a snake and he wasn’t
a human, I’d tell him again how tired I am—


but he’s just a human and I am a snake.



Phone Call: Lesson in Style
for my mother’s 98th birthday


“Everything feels all swollen and puffy, like my brain
isn’t mine—I’d like to see it cleaned out, cleaned out
in clean sweeps—there’s a kind of foreignness to so much


of what I used to call reality…now it’s all so damned
boring, there’s so much repetitiousness. I keep seeing
Dad’s gravestone and trying to remember what I had carved


on it, two adjectives after Kenneth I. Sleigh, ‘steadfast something
husband to Rosamond…’ And then I thought about that boy
in my AP class who when I called the roll, and when


everybody else would say, Prepared!, he’d say day after day
in the most happy go lucky way, Unprepared!  He was going
through something at home, and that was his way of


dealing with it, so that I admired, oh, what’s the word,
his insouciance! Yes, insouciance! I feel so uncertain, Tom—
sitting in the classroom calling Unprepared when


death comes this close to me? Which means you’re ready
for suppositions: I feel such self-violence these days
that, if I could ever walk again, I’d go to the kitchen


and get a knife. I feel so outside of my life—
but I remembered just today after working to find the word
that Russian artist’s first name, Marc! Marc Chagall


the one with all the ladies floating in the air
that your dad and I went to see in Canada. Marc,
spelled with a “c”—thank you, mind—I like to talk to it


and give it a little pat—it may not be on call but it’s still there—
now listen, Tom, this is your Mother: I’m worried about you.
You know, we’re in a battle here—and we’re gonna lose it—


and it’s OK to lose it. Now, you’ve gotta quit, you’ve gotta
quit killing yourself trying to keep your mother
alive. Let me tell you, your dad was way ahead of you,


he was way ahead of me, but he’s right here: it’s OK; your mother
will give it the best she can. This isn’t for the faint of heart—
so be calm, be ready…don’t wear yourself to a frazzle…


I love you too, Son. Bye…”


The Story of Civilization


Now that I can never talk
to you again, your voice leads me on,
a little scratchy from too much use
like a record played back
on a gramophone:

“When you read to me, Tom,
from The Story of Civilization
all about the Romans
it sounded more like
a Who’s Who of assassination:
maybe the Democrats
should do to who’s-it, that Republican
with the Dumbo ears, what they did to Cicero,
cut off his hands, cut out his tongue
and nail them
to the Senate rostrum.
Still, the fact that someone
like me, who hadn’t walked on her own
for eight years could still say,
before I died like a Roman by my own hand,
“assassination,” “exsanguinate,”
even a word as crazy
as “pusillanimous” to describe Caesar’s killers
gives me pleasure: Beware the Ides of March, Tom, beware!
At least back then older women were good
for keeping the Olympic flame going—
but I’ll bet they weren’t near as old as me…
Remember how my hand started shaking so bad
from Parkinsons that I couldn’t hold a match
to light the stove? I was heartbroken
when they wouldn’t let me bring Leo to that awful “home”
to live with me. Before you all
insisted I move there,
he had his cat castle next to my chair
and the two of us would nap side by side.
I got so angry sometimes…I’d sit there listening
to you reading about those bloody-minded Romans
and how everything the Greeks thought up, some Roman
debased by making it useful, practical—
and I’d bite my tongue, wondering why
my “nice little” room, with you kids’ and your dad’s photos
on the wall, felt like that moment when that crazy fool Lear
says, “Let’s away to prison…somethingsomething…And we’ll
take upon us the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies…”
but you were my spy, and I was your Ma,
and neither of us believed in anything like God.
It made me so sad to leave you…but everyone
had to get on with their lives, and besides,
the money was almost gone. I knew I had to do it
before rent was due in the middle of the month, so I did—
not like a Roman with a razor
but with poison like a Greek—simpler all round…and no blood
to mop up after.
The week before I died,
they brought in a dog
for all of us to pet. The dog smiled at me
in the way they do, his fur was soft and curly,
and he stared into my eyes for a long time—
Emma used to do that too, poor little Emma
that I had to put down when the cancer
got so bad she couldn’t walk. I wonder
if deep down cats and dogs aren’t more human
than humans can ever be,
more understanding
of what it’s like to be so old, half blind,
unable to walk, to find it hard to find a reason
to keep on living. I don’t think anyone younger
can really understand what old people feel
the way little Emma did, or that dog
they brought in, or even Leo.
And even though Emma growled
at you and nipped your ankles
and I’d tell her NO NO,
maybe I’m going to come back as a dog,
her little soul transmigrating into mine.
Remember how she bit that litigious
woman who sued me for fifteen thousand dollars? It was lucky
your landlord brother had insurance
or right then we’d have had to put her down.
Just like me…. Son, I miss you. But when I
come back to you, you’ll know
it’s me by the way I’ll bite you to the bone.”

Have I sentimentalized your voice,
wanting you to be a measured Greek when really
you were Caesar on a bender out for blood?
But your death is all your own, nothing I
can do or say will make it less severe:
filling up a brown plastic bottle halfway
from the bathroom sink, I gave the powdered meds
a good shake so that the elixir
would work its fatal magic. You gulped
it down with one hand while I held the other.
And just before you nodded off, my eyes
fixed on yours; and as you stared across
the room, you gave a little laugh and gravely
said, You’ll have to forgive me if I snore.



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.


MEDIA INQUIRIES: Marisa Atkinson | Graywolf Press