September 14, 2018KR Reviews

Learning What to Make of Negatives

House of Fact, House of Ruin. Tom Sleigh. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2018. 117 pages. $16.00.

My mother once bought my Baptist grade-school shorts, gym uniform, and bow tie at the Walt Whitman Mall on Long Island, where the old prophet’s tongue has become “hobbled” and he himself has become “his own memorial,” according to the poet Tom Sleigh. What Whitman achieved in his lifetime contracts to the place where I stained my T-shirt with Sbarro’s pizza sauce, squeezing my legs through fitted slacks. This is a series of negative images, those that neutralize disparate memories of Whitman. Cartoonish depictions of memory are dangerous: I’ve enjoyed pizza while Whitman learns “what it means in death to live / by learning what to make of negatives.”

Sleigh quotes in his poem “Negatives” the famous Whitman line, “the real war will never get / in the books,” then wants to know if “the unending / universal mourning-wail” can “drown out the standard elegiac.” Readers may understand this as a problem of opposites, perception and depiction, trauma and traumatic recourse. Truth and the opposite of truth concern Sleigh’s tenth collection of poems, House of Fact, House of Ruin. And I want to disregard the triviality of pizza and bow ties for this collection that only briefly walks through the Walt Whitman Mall, instead addressing the second Libyan Civil War, the Syrian Civil War, the Six-Day War, the death of Sleigh’s friends, and the idea of his own death. I want to, but the poems tell me that I cannot, that even a barcode scanner recalls for Sleigh memories of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” another lyric’s namesake. To call it triviality proves my mega-mall imagination, set against the language of empathy Sleigh’s collection exhibits.

Empathy, in this context, should not be understood as mere exhibitionism, mere imitation—rather a real process of learning that Sleigh might report to his readers the role of capitalism and Western imperialism in this terror. This is not without moments of admitted misconception: “I can tell you that liberal attitudes such as you have are easy to hold / when the argument’s written,” the Syrian Minister of Expatriates addresses the speaker of “Propaganda.” This collection is not interested in empathy only for self-preservation’s sake. The poet, instead, wants to answer this question from the lyric “For a Libyan Militia Member”: “Who strips us / of our shadows so that our histories turn to glass?” Sleigh continues to cross-examine histories and shadows in his new collection of essays The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in An Age of Refugees, published at the same time as House of Fact, House of Ruin.

“Did Whitman learn what was fake, what real?” This question asked of Whitman is posed to Sleigh’s readers and to the poet himself, who has served as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa. The collection mapped in negatives: the first part with poems mostly about Sleigh’s time as a journalist in war-zones, the second mostly about Sleigh’s life on the civilian side, each divided into three sections. Almost halfway through House of Fact, House of Ruin, these lines confront the reader: “Whatever you do, there are rockets falling / and after the rockets, smoke climbing // up through walls that are exploding.” The sound of participles rises over enjambed clauses like smoke. “Whatever you do . . . ” is both an unsettling reminder and an attempt at objectivity for the poem “Before Rain.” What the sentence may be missing is an opinion, a lyric “I.” So smoke settles into a five-beat char:

The bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down.

No one lingers at lipstick counters, no one
stares into a screen to escape the digital mayhem

of heroes hurdling over the heads of monsters.

Without an imagination to witness the “digital mayhem,” the only lucid mind is our planet: “Forget all this, says Earth to the stars,” the poem concludes. The opinion of the lyric is clear in the near-supernatural quality of this voice, which renounces humankind and our capacity for destruction.

Disavowal is what centers readers in the human throughout this collection, from the tortured and the poor to the powerless and the mentally ill. It is revealed in the title poem that “even the house of fact is a house of ruin.” The tools of perception, the lens through which one witnesses violence, are not always reliable because of that very violence. Here is an example from the sonnet sequence “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”:

But there are other answers too. You’re in a war zone
and things get blurred. We wanted intelligence but it really
became absolutely morally impossible for me
to continue when I realized most of the people we
were dealing with were innocent. But it was a very blurry line—

If the way these poems think and feel is through the language of opposites—the objective and the subjective, the “house of fact” and the “house of ruin”—Sleigh wonders about tools that clarify the blur of war. Cameras, mass media outlets, and recording devices appear and disappear throughout the book. This is true, at least, for “A Drone in the Promised Land,” Sleigh’s sonnet sequence from the perspectives of a combat drone and human, maybe both:

                                                                I wanted
to feel my observer’s stance was both accountable
and enviable in its lack of malice, wanted
to think I stood on a different scruple
of legitimate detachment—but the camera
kept watch from a locked room in Nevada.

The drone suspects its culpability even within its conviction of neutrality. “To want” and “to watch”—Sleigh deploys the verbs of desire, attachment to what is seen, so skillfully those sounds ring into the last syllable of Nevada, encircling the sentence with ah, ah, ah as if the drone realizes its personal malice. The camera, like the Earth, cannot be trusted, these minds that are designed to have the most informed opinion. There will always be another pair of eyes behind the camera, a poet behind the Earth, rereading the tool of the objective.

The attempt to live inside reason in the face of global suffering, whether or not one’s perceptions can be trusted as reportage, is Sleigh’s greatest difficulty. To live inside the house of fact as a house of ruin would be to see fact and ruin at the same time and resist the binary. “Meanwhile, the heart, undaunted, / kept imposing itself—wanted to call them a ‘fearful stain” / who ‘can’t go home again,’” Sleigh writes in “Kibera,” with his speaker looking at a picture of Jesus’s heart tacked on a wall in the Nairobi shanty town, listening to orphans sing a “rehearsed song / that wavered in the ear.” The heart ranks what it perceives, which becomes the danger the following lines address: “But looking through the eye, / you see it differently. / And then I thought, How differently?” To try and look at the imposing image differently, to argue with perception for an attempt at accurate depiction, to whittle sound from memory, these are the modes of House of Fact, House of Ruin. Sometimes image can change, contain opposites at once: “On one side of my brain I’m seeing him healthy and in the other / I’m standing guard at three in the morning,” the speaker wavers, again in “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.” When the speaker asks in that same poem, “How do I control this situation,” I suspect the answer is reason.

I must think Sleigh holds close to mind what Czesław Miłosz wrote in “Incantation,” translated by Robert Pinsky and Milosz: “Human reason is beautiful and invincible.” Sleigh contests the accuracy of what his speakers report, challenging the binary objectivity and subjectivity, negatives as a test of reason. “None of this happened inside the analytical logics / of my sentences, both too precise and not precise / enough,” Sleigh’s speaker recalls in “Net.” Since poetry is the vehicle for these analytical logics, the poet proves again that he is a master of forms, rhythms, and modes. The numerous and nimble sonnets; rhymes ringing softly; almost accidental moments of metrical clarification; elegies for Mark Strand, Philip Levine, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and the Slovenian poet Aleš Debeljak. “I’ll be / left alone to dine with the nothingness // that, just for form’s sake, says grace,” Sleigh reflects in the title poem. Between this domestic nothingness and the death of political terror, the poet composes only with love for the suffering: he shares the stories of the silenced while unmasking his position relative to that silence.

Christian Wessels is a poet from New York. His work has recently appeared in AGNIOnline, KROnline, and Gettysburg Review. He has received fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry and Boston University.