September 2007

Jason B. Jones


Space Walk by Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh wrote a very fine essay in the Winter 2006 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review. On "Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry," Sleigh protests both the merciless exposure of subjectivity of some contemporary poets and theorists and the naively pretheoretical stance of others (he calls this latter view an "almost preliterate hostility") in defending the poetic self. He points out, perfectly reasonably, that an ambivalence about the self -- or, rather, an interest in the possibilities of a contested self -- is a consistent strain in American poetry from Anne Bradstreet to the present. Ultimately, he values "[d]issonance of feeling, the disrelation of 'I' to any settled viewpoint, which is a way of being that seems foreclosed to the 'mind at rest'" in poems, and he wants to find an urgent commitment to these problems whenever he reads. This commitment needs to include a some sense of an actual self, since otherwise there's a kind of theoretical ninja-poet behind the textual scene. Weirdly, this leads him into a celebration of Robert Lowell as the ultimate poet of this flux, this impersonated self, but the essay is a valuable jumping-off point for the selves of Space Walk, Sleigh's seventh book of poems.

There are numerous poems in Space Walk that borrow the image of walking or floating in a space suit. "Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry" helps clarify the image's appeal: Sleigh imagines a poet writing about a stuck window, and, at a certain moment in the process, this imagined poet will ineluctably start "to pull away from the window and to try to view it from the farthest reaches of space, or to view it from as great a temporal distance as possible, in order to give that negative capability free play." Considered as a figure of the poet, an astronaut on a space walk embodies contradiction: seemingly absolutely free, yet tethered to the shuttle by a cable (or by the amount of oxygen in the tank); sensorily muffled, yet prosthetically extended; protectively swaddled, yet thoroughly exposed.  In "Necessity," he writes that "the astronaut floating / in his clumsy suit" finds "the infinite void / more domestic than infinite, / life and death a matter / of checking his spacesuit's pressure gauge." Sleigh returns to this figure again and again as a way of thinking through the space of poetic speech and feeling, and the complex relationship these feelings have to those of humans.

Reading the poems in Space Walk, one has reason to crave a protective suit. September 11 , the war in Iraq, sexually transmitted diseases, rape, and the lesser traumas of love and family life are all taken on here, frequently in mini-groupings of poems that set off reverberations of meaning and feeling. I suspect Victor Hanson, the designated classicist for neo-conservative warmongering, will not much care for Sleigh's use of Tacitus, Achilles, and other persons from that grand tradition -- though he would be the poorer for it. Sleigh binds his interest in the flexibility of the poetic self to a series of experiments in form -- there are many poems that double in on themselves in odd, slanting ways, complicating that "sentimental blueprint, / lacking depth -- / a ruled axis X and Y / whose illusions / were bearable... / then unbearable..." so many of us carry (Sleigh's ellipses). Many have wondered whether we in the West have "grit" enough for the war on terror, a truly weird question Sleigh inverts: in this war, "our knowledge is the knowledge / of drifting sand, grit in the cupboard, / grit under the bed where a doll's head, / button eyes open, lies forgotten." Sleigh's formal control and classicism give these poems a striking authority.

I do have some reservations about this collection. Bizarrely, "Block and Bag" seems to borrow inspiration from American Beauty: "a little Styrofoam block fiery as Achilles / racing after a plastic bag kiting and billowing / round and round this blah arena." I yield to no one in my admiration for the mythical method, and Sleigh's classicism is an important part of this collection's power, but this is a bit much. And there are other times, when not even Sleigh's interest in self-impersonation can quite extricate him from jams. In "The Breeze," for instance, the speaker sees, or seems to see, the material effects of an improvised explosive device: if the breeze were words the acronyms
            spelled out before there were conditions to bring them
to the tongue rooting them in air, letter on letter

opening and flowering -- oh, come off it, fuck it, stop
            all this deployment of flowers and figures
to get around what was right there on the ground,

the glistening strangeness of it lying in the sun, skullcap
            blown off, thick black luxurious hair of a suicide
bomber, like a wig hung in a well-dressed window...

I'll freely concede that by making this section of the poem turn on a pun on "ground" -- ground as earth and ground as the context for a rhetorical figure -- and by immediately following the "glistening strangeness" with yet another figure, Sleigh tries to signal that he doesn't quite believe in the renunciation of metaphor and, by extension, poetry, that's being demanded here. The problem is that even that dynamic -- where one poetically denounces poetry, thereby winking at the denunciation -- isn't original enough to carry the poem. There are a few other moments like this in the collection (see "Lullaby"), where Sleigh's machinery for self-impersonation creaks a little too noticeably.

Space Walk is a fine collection of poems, particularly when viewed from Sleigh's own criteria of self-impersonation. For these poems' conversation with one another yields that "dissonance of feeling" he values. (For example, tracking the idea of necessity, particularly historical necessity, across these poems, is fascinating.) There are many poems that confound political or social engagement with sheer denunciation; Tom Sleigh offers up a quite different relation to the world.

Space Walk: Poems by Tom Sleigh
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 978-0-618-68424-3
101 pages