Tom Sleigh’s Army Cats is a poetry collection rooted in his journalistic days in Beirut after the 2006 Israeli/Lebanese War, but is threaded with love, literature, and family When I saw him read at New York’s Poet’s House he touched on the genesis of some of his poems saying, “[some topics are] not the kind of thing I could put into an article.” Of course, poetry was the right fit, which brought about his latest book.
In “Beirut Tank,” Sleigh writes about the army mechanic and his tank and in doing so, humanizes both the tank and its creator in such a way that the reader feels for the daily toils of the mechanic:
…the tank is old, small, about the size
Of a horse and cart. The armor plate shines green
Under the streetlight. The sprockets, almost rusted out.
Somebody forgot to grease the nipples. The timing belt is nicked
And worn. The spare parts from France don’t fit. This wire
Crossed with this wire makes a catastrophic fire…
The mechanic spites his tank, not unlike that of a lovers’ quarrel, annoyed at uncompleted tasks and ill-equipped parts, but he also looks tenderly on his metallic creature:
He stares up in that live, minute, completely
Concentrated way of scrutinizing something
Of someone you thought you understood:
The tank’s underbody completely covers his body,
They look like they’re embracing when he reaches up
Inside it, his needle nose pliers crimping, twisting,
Pulling down hard. There, you see that, it’s all corroded.
Sleigh’s use of line breaks help move his poems into unmarked territory. The “embrace” between the mechanic and his tank is unexpected and brings the reader further into the speaker’s observation of the mechanic’s duties.
Sleigh is particularly good at addressing the reader in such a way that makes the reader pauses for self-reflection. In his poem “Stranding,” a poem about corruption, deceit and ghosts, the mirroring of the speaker and the reader is seen.
But the ditch knows
Just who we are…
What choices are you given,
What makes you want to swim
Out of your own element?
The demure little ear-holes
And intelligent clear eyes,
The fate from birth sealed
Inside its smile,
Spent flukes and tail
Being gnawed to bone.
The curt unrevealing stare
Mirroring back my own.
In “Refugee,” the speaker is a witness to an everyday moment between a mother and her small daughter, an experience most readers can relate to. But look, this is no ordinary moment: though the small girl is playing with her doll, she and her mother are refugees and the girl is horribly disfigured. As a witness, the speaker travels emotionally, into the young girl’s future; thereby, adding a tinge of tenderness to the displacement and the disfiguration of the girl’s life. In doing so, the poem is a hymn, something at once tender and loving, like prayer.
The woman she will be tells her that she’s pretty
Such a pretty girl, and the child she is
As the mother knows it too, she nods her head
And for that moment the three of them agree.
A poem like “Revenant” is haunting, captivating and beautiful. The speaker is contemplatively smoking a cigarette, but as the title suggests, the poem is full of the has-been, the what-if¸ and the subjunctive tense for anyone who’s ever taken French. The poem offers a piece of something that could’ve happened against a could-be love-story.
I light one cigarette off the butt of another
In the deep quiet of the study that magnifies
The moment when two lovers come together
Just after the bomb hits and their bodies
In the cellar, in God knows what excesses of emotion,
Turn sculptural, frozen in their last position.
To think like this used to make me queasy –
But then the thoughts become your body…
The poem stumbles between painful memories of the erotic and the political, but does so in grace, like a dance. In the last stanza, the speaker is somewhere between pain and pleasure, haunted as the addressee takes on the form of a cat. The word “revenant” comes from the French “Revenir,” meaning returning or to come back to:
You were there, taking on the soul of a cat, and came
Slinking by my elbow, butting and rubbing…
And then you lay down on my chest, your throaty,
Deep purr rumbling so loud the explosion
Faded out and all I could smell and all I could breathe
Was your hot, damp breath breathing into my mouth.
The final lines are dense with the heat of memory and of breath. The reader is left alone with the revenant to witness the tender-terror they have cast on the living.
Though the underlying pull of Sleigh’s poems are in the direction of the political and the militaristic, there are poems that uplift the reader, like the nostalgic poem, “On First Avenue and Sixth Street,” the poem “Triumph” which crosses matriarchy, with allusions of literature and history, and the poem, “Self-Portrait with Shoulder Pads” that ties together sports, sibling rivalry and humor.
One of the most powerful and terrifying poems in Army Cats is a poem centered on a YouTube video of Saddam Hussein’s execution but summons the one and only, William Shakespeare. “This Thing of Darkness” (a reference to Shakespeare’s Caliban) is heavy, not only because of its content, but by its prose form.
Whoever is holding the cell phone – and it is my hunch that it is Shakespeare, since who else could write such a scene in which Saddam’s lavish rhetoric and defiant presence could exact from its audience this precise mixture of horror, sadness, joyous vindication, and disgust –seems under constraint to keep the phone hidden from the authorities in the room; and so making a virtue out of his necessities, Shakespeare succeeds in building the scene’s tension by showing it from the perspective of someone whose moral sensibilities are revolted by the spectacle but who can’t tear his eyes away.
Here, we get a glimpse of “Sleigh the Scholar” in the way that the execution scene becomes a lesson in staging and in drama. Even when Sleigh is humorous, it is tinted with a moment of horror for the reader: “And, of course, In Shakespeare’s eyes – Shakespeare, who must find all this horribly familiar, but promising material.” The beauty of the poem is the way Sleigh admits Shakespeare into the room:
This is something an old pro understands: it’s not enough to use the imagination as a form of insider privilege to give you access to the scene of an historic execution. Take it from Will Shakespeare, former butcher’s boy and glover, you’ve got to skin and tan it with your own mind before you can relish it, deplore it.
This collection has made me want to slink myself, like a cat, into literature, rub up against history and relish its connection to human curiosity. I want to summon up those writers who have shown the way of the future, through their words of the past.