A Traveler to Troubled Lands, Called to Bear WitnessSmarzlik
HOUSE OF FACT, HOUSE OF RUIN
By Tom Sleigh
117 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.
THE LAND BETWEEN TWO RIVERS
Writing in an Age of Refugees
By Tom Sleigh
255 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.
In “Barbarian in the Garden,” the poet Zbigniew Herbert’s collection of essays published in the 1980s, Herbert, fresh out of Cold War Poland, travels around Europe, meditating on food, art and the relationship of culture to torture or violence. He’ll savor Orvieto wine or truffles on village patios before delving into the historic burning of a medieval sect known as the Cathars or the slaughter of bulls commemorated at Lascaux. As Herbert travels across Europe, his essays move in constellation, asking: How do moments of deep human culture relate to moments of deep human violence? How does the history of art relate to the history of torture? These are complex questions. No one would expect a poet to answer straightforwardly. In a world that would like simple answers, Herbert evades simplicity.
The ingredients of Herbert’s essays rose up for me again as I read Tom Sleigh’s linked and intertwined new books — one of memoir and reportage (“The Land Between Two Rivers”), and one of poems (“House of Fact, House of Ruin”). Like Herbert, Sleigh is a deliberate traveler in the troubled world. Rather than unearth the deep cruelties of European history, Sleigh leaves the confusions of 21st-century America to visit some of the world’s hot zones: Kurdistan, Mogadishu, rural Lebanon, Nairobi. Sometimes he’s conducting poetry workshops; sometimes he’s dealing with cultural attachés or smooth-tongued diplomats; sometimes he’s face to face with refugees in camps. At all times his mission is also to be present with his own body, with others, and with the notebook whose contents he will eventually weave into essays and poems that feed one another, sometimes cannibalizing one another line for line, joke for joke.
As a poet-journalist traveling through war zones, Sleigh also has a distinct precursor in Walt Whitman, who in traveling to Civil War hospitals and battlefields filled his notebooks with dispatches that would later become the essayistic poems “Drum Taps” as well as the impressionistic essays in “Specimen Days.” In his poetry and his prose, Whitman was exploring novel forms of writing in a new democracy — a language of access, of one body witnessing another in shared space. Like Whitman, Sleigh here plays with what the observer’s notebook can become. He embeds lines of poetry in journalistic essays like a rogue reporter; conversely, he’ll forge a sonnet or rhymed tercets out of reported language, as he does in poems that incorporate the testimony of Tony Lagouranis, who witnessed the torture at Abu Ghraib. Sleigh doffs his hat to Whitman expliciitly, noting in one poem that he’s practicing “with Whitman a raw / form of brinksmanship.”
If Sleigh’s brinksmanship is about drawing near to lives at the verge, it is also about trying to record the narratives by which lives come to have meaning, and finding the language in which we come to understand what Sleigh calls “the soul’s vulnerable republic.” Sleigh’s cross-pollinating forms remind us that language, too, is always being deployed to some purpose. In the face of propaganda, political backlash and crisis chatter, which stories allow us to become human to one another? Just outside Qana, Sleigh listens to a man named Joseph, who was asked to recover the shattered bodies of small children after the most recent bombings. At that moment, they see in the rubble the “gleaming, flesh-colored, plastic thigh and leg of a baby doll.” The image is chilling.