The King’s Touch
Tom Sleigh
Graywolf Press 2022

For years, Tom Sleigh was a Boston poet, a Cambridge poet, and he made poems that seemed associated with the interpretive and bookish spirit of those places, writing poems that were deeply and kaleidoscopically learned and also able to train our minds on how we live in our personal lives. In recent years, with his journalism and poems grounded in first-hand experience in the Middle East, Sleigh has been more of a poet of global consciousness. His recent books of poetry show his work as a journalist and concerned observer of some of humanity’s disasters and warfare around the world; this is present also in his collection of essays, The Land between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees (Graywolf, 2018). We see all of his development in his new book of poetry, The King’s Touch, which is a book of warnings and cautions, a book of urgent consciousness.

When we read Sleigh, we read a poet who has interpreted what personal and public life has felt like for the last forty years. We can see how the banners of cable news are supplanted by the glowing of cellphones that may help to identify the bodies of the dead and to trigger explosives, and we can see how American poetry has changed. For instance, in the late nineties, we may have been rifling through Herodotus for a poem as bitter and true as “Allies” by C.K. Williams or to see how Seamus Heaney channels Sophocles for “Mycenae Lookout,” but nobody needs classical violence or allusion today, or less of it, as where we live seems tragic enough on its own (which seems to me to be the secret point of Louise Glück’s Meadowlands owing as much to the artifice of opera arias and duets and witty recitative side-comments as it does to Homer, and also of David Ferry’s translations written in the same blank verse cadences as his contemporary poems of loss).

One of my favorite Sleigh books, The Dream House, came out in 1999. A product of its time, the collection begins with a version of Horace, updated and set in Boston with destabilized and broken-seeming stanzas and some of the local details, such as the Combat Zone, already fading into the past as downtown Boston grew more palatable to tourists:

We kneel at the foot of oblivion’s alp,
waiting for the snow to melt,
                                                   for the stream

fretted with ice
to crack like a pistol shot,

and flow
as we splash our wine staining the tablecloth.
Keep hidden from us what tomorrow holds—

let’s go looking while we can, while the Zone
or the Block or Wareham Street
lures us down onto our knees at night,
                                                                      through parks

and dunes, the Gladiator’s Gym
and the Brass Rail . . .

Oh god of flesh, god of pleasure,

keep up in the dark
                                  one moment more.

This is one of the moral versions of Horace—there have been a number of contemporary Horatians—that sees understandable and relatable decadence all around. We would rather not know. We love pleasure too much.

But Tom Sleigh is also on the side of knowing. Roughly the first half of The King’s Touch draws on his lived experience working as a journalist in the Middle East. He takes us there to the moment, and the individual people in moments, in ways that we don’t get from our mediated screens or even from the best journalism. On one hand, we have this American poet writing about relationships, about his mother, his daughter. On the other hand, we have a sense that American ways of thinking about things are not very much help for dark times. There is a certain amount of hellfire in this book. The first person plural is everybody on the planet:

If you adjust your ears
to the proper frequency,
you can hear
our bones
in marked and unmarked graves
talk among themselves, rehearsing
cold facts
about who never passed the test
of standing up
on two legs,
who never left
the savannah for the forest,
who hemmed and hawed over whether God exists.

Tom Sleigh’s contemporary war-torn and refugee-abusing world is as drab and ambiguous in its aims as the literature of espionage by Graham Greene and John le Carré. In the second half of the book we find the personal poet living beyond screens. The news is better, but we still have to be tough-minded. Humanity attaches especially to an ambiguous figure, like the electronics-repairman whose work can have a lethal application that allows Sleigh to compare him to Berini’s statue of David, the one that is aiming his slingshot with some seriously lethal musculature and eye like the sights of a rifle. Or maybe the stone in the sling is just social media.

Another figure with an ambiguous relationship to the danger of conflict appears in the book’s next poem, “Confession,” a purposeful juxtaposition. Sleigh still speaks from his uneasy love of the Horatian god of pleasure and in a Horatian and moralizing way, although the drawbacks of the god still remain blindness and decadence, and he chides the figure of violence from this perspective. But the ending of his poem grants a full humanity to a figure that we might associate with with a cartoonish image of some wild-eyed fanatic:

My aspiring martyr, remember
the air-conditioners’ chill oases
in the hard-partying cafés that are now rubble?
By now the sea has soaked your heart through.
Now you can speak the dry-mouthed truth
of tear gas still clinging to your T-shirt as you smile
at me from the screen and say with a shy shrug,
as if you were confessing some small fault,
“Tom, all my friends and my enemies’ friends are dead.”

One of the inciters with a bullhorn at a protest that has turned deadly but spared him, this man has something of Yeats’s “heavily built Falstaffian” sergeant in the Black and Tans who “Comes cracking jokes of civil war / As though to die by gunshot were / The finest play under the sun.” Characteristically for his poems about violent politics, Sleigh does not include details of nationality, cause, or specific time in this poem. He focuses us on the warm and murderous ambiguity of the human. One of the questions that arises from reading Sleigh’s work is to what extent do people actually equal their deeds. The aggressive is human, of course. This seems to be the point of “Black Dog, White Dog,” in which the “souls of the dead wake up and bark at the living.” That poem, by the way, seems to allude to the unsentimental awareness of the world of global violence and American complicity, the ways in which the personal and domestic share many things in common with the global in Stephen Dobyns’s Black Dog, Red Dog.

Sleigh still operates under the sign of the dual nature of the god of pleasure as both blinding and humane as we experience our shared humanity in our desire for comfort in a world of misfortune. Perhaps because of this we can see similarities in some of the images in Sleigh: the two apparently sleeping teenagers who have overdosed in a poem from Army Cats share something with the soldier sleeping in “Up the Hill” from The King’s Touch. In this poem, the sleeping soldier’s good looks are part of the come-on of the visual rhetoric used to recruit soldiers in advertising:

The sleeping soldier pulls up his knees
up to his chest: he could be you, reader, or me—
one of us drawing the other one close, yours or my chest
warm against the other’s shoulder blades
that you or I say, in a low voice, feel so good, so sharp.

These lines reminded me of Paul Fussell’s queasy aesthetic mediation on first seeing the bluish bodies of German teenage soldiers in “My War: How I Got Irony in the Infantry”: “For the first time I understood the German phrase for the war dead: die Gefallenen.” The pleasure principle is sign of life. Its manipulation is one of the causes of war.

We’re in a risky place today, with people not really getting actual news and authoritarians invading countries and undermining norms of orderly elections. What could be creepier than a king touching you anyway? One thing that seems to be new in Sleigh’s new book is that he is reminding us what twentieth century totalitarianism looked like to intellectuals and poets who did not see the warning signs or who ingloriously muddled through their reigns. In “After a Sentence in a Letter from Pasternak to Rilke, 1926,” we have a poem about Rilke not understanding Mussolini (fun fact here: he preferred wanking off in his castle instead of having sex), and Pasternak turning informant to save his own life, two options we don’t respect when it comes to the rise of totalitarianism, missing its evil and betraying our friends to survive. “A Dictator Walks into a Bar” is a poem that has some surprisingly Dobyns-like qualities in its fabulist set-up if not in its execution. Sleigh’s poem might be about how we might want to, say, punch the shit out of the leader of Syria or Putin or whomever, but instead, in the end, the dictator has “moved down / the bar and seems, head bowed” to be staring into his drink or praying. Meanwhile, we are stuck with “the new kind // of humor, the new kind of prayer/ in which the jokes aren’t funny and prayers don’t deliver.” In an elliptical way, I suppose, this refers to the laugh-fests that some find the rallies of Trump.

If poets have spheres, and I think they do, but not spheres of influence, only areas of consistency, areas of exploration, poetic powers, then Tom Sleigh writes poems that have something like the consistency of an integrated personality; they have pleasures in being well made and cognizant, in ethics and morality, and a sense of self that attempts to make sense of their conflicts. And in conflict, which is unappeasable, they find a way forward with a sense of global tragedy, and as for the generosity and beauty and intelligences we may find in the activity of our lives as writers or interpreters, all of that activity is also subject to the forces that cause or fail to ameliorate suffering as well. One fascinating poem in this regard is the six-part sequence “Readings,” which collages together various anecdotes about injustice and the state-suppression of freedom. At humanity’s best, we have the undeniable heroic and good activity of a Frederick Douglass, which we read about. In the end, the life of reading, which Sleigh associates with his English teacher mother, is the life of consciousness itself, a privacy, the voice in our heads, the something more basic than heroism to which Sleigh pays his ultimate homage.

David Blair

David is the author of five books of poetry and a collection of essays. His newest book True Figures: Selected Shorter Poems and Prose Poems, 1998-2021 is now available from MadHat Press. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, and he teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire.

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