House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press)
“I hate to admit it, but even the house of fact is a house of ruin,” writes Tom Sleigh in the title sequence of this extraordinary new collection. Very much of our present moment, in which fact can so easily be manufactured and ruin so easily achieved by pressing "Send" or pulling a trigger, these poems range across the landscapes of contemporary experience. Whether a militia in Libya or a military base in Baghdad, a shantytown in east Africa or an opulent mall on Long Island, these subjects and locations resonate with the psychic and social costs of having let the genie of war, famine, and climate change out of the lamp in the first place. The book ultimately turns on conundrums of selfhood and self-estrangement in which Sleigh urges us toward a different realm, where we might achieve the freedom of spirit to step outside our own circumstances, however imperfectly, and look at ourselves as other, as unfamiliar, as strange. House of Fact, House of Ruin is Sleigh’s most engaging and virtuosic collection to date.
The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees (Graywolf Press)
Tom Sleigh describes himself donning flak jacket and helmet, working as a journalist inside militarized war zones and refugee camps, as “a sort of Rambo, Jr.” With self-deprecation and empathetic humor, these essays recount Sleigh’s experiences during several tours in Africa and in the Middle Eastern region once called Mesopotamia, “the land between two rivers.”
Sleigh asks three central questions: What did I see? How could I write about it? Why did I write about it? The first essays focus on the lives of refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia, and Iraq. Under the conditions of military occupation, famine, and war, their stories can be harrowing, even desperate, but they’re also laced with wily humor and an undeluded hopefulness, their lives having little to do with their depictions in mass media. The second part of this book explores how writing might be capable of honoring the texture of these individuals’ experiences while remaining faithful to political emotions, rather than political convictions. Sleigh examines the works of Anna Akhmatova, Mahmoud Darwish, Ashur Etwebi, David Jones, Tomas Tranströmer, and others as guiding spirits. Concluding with a beautiful remembrance of Sleigh’s friendship with Seamus Heaney, the final essays meditate on youth, restlessness, illness, and Sleigh’s motivations for writing his own experiences in order to move out into the world.
Tom Sleigh is the author of nine previous books of poetry, including Station Zed, Army Cats, and Space Walk, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He teaches at Hunter College and lives in New York.