Tom SleighUSAWriting2014

What I Did


I rose most mornings at dawn and immediately sat down to work. Some days words like me, some days they don't—but at Civitella, I got lucky, and most days they did.  I wrote a sequence of poems that were often highly associative, occasionally surreal, but grounded in "the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life," to quote Bishop. The poems were lit up by little flashes of apocalyptic imagery, though nothing that you wouldn't see in the landscape around Civitella, or back home in Brooklyn. I also noticed that my experiences in Libya in March, and Iraq in December, had begun to work themselves into the poems, but obliquely, in odd details and paradoxical ways of thinking and feeling. Some poems started out as narrative and ended up as oblique lyrics. Others flirted with allegory, but allegory without a key. I wrote about twenty poems, and was in one of those writing jags where I suddenly felt free to follow every linguistic impulse that raced by, and where anything I felt or observed could suddenly find its way into a poem. I don't often feel this way, and I want to thank Civitella for opening the way not only to the word-hoard, but to new, and what I hope will be long-enduring, friendships. 




Second Sight



In my fantasy of fatherhood, in which I'm

your real father, not just the almost dad

arriving through random channels of divorce,

you and I don't lie to one another—

shrugging each other off when words

get the best of us but coming

full circle with wan smiles.

When you hole up inside yourself,

headphones and computer screen

taking you away, I want to feel in ten years

that if I'm still alive you'll still look

at me with that same wary expectancy,

your surreptitious cool-eyed appraisal

debating if my love for you is real.

Am I destined to be those shark-faced waves

that my death will one day make you enter?

You and your mother make such a self-sufficient pair—

in thrift stores looking for your Prom dress,

what father could stand up to your unsparing eyes

gauging with such erotic calculation

your figure in the mirror? Back of it all, when I

indulge my second sight, all I see are dead zones:

no grandchildren, no evenings at the beach, no bonfires

in a future that allows one glass of wine

per shot of insulin. Will we both agree

that I love you, always, no matter

my love's flawed, aging partiality?

My occupation now is to help you be alone.





Army Cats




Over by the cemetery next to the CP

you could see them in wild catmint going crazy:

I watched them roll and wriggle, paw it, lick it,

chew it, leap about, pink tongues stuck out, drooling.


Cats in the tanks’ squat shadows lounging.

Or sleeping curled up under gun turrets.

Hundreds of them sniffing or licking

long hind legs stuck into the air,


great six-toed brutes fixing you with a feral,

slit-eyed stare...everywhere ears twitching,

twitching as the armor plate expanding

in the heat gave off piercing little pings.


Cat invasion of the mind. Cat tribes

running wild. And one big pregnant

female comes racing through weeds to pounce

between the paws of a marble dog


crouching on a grave and sharpens

her claws against his beard of moss

before she goes all silky, luxuriously

squirming right under the dog’s jaws,


and rolls over to expose her swollen belly.

Picture her with gold hoop earrings

and punked-out nosering like the cat goddess Bast,

bronze kittens at her feet, the crowd drinking wildly,


women lifting up their skirts as she floats down

the Nile, a sistrum jangling in her paw.

Then come back out of it and sniff

her ointments, Lady of Flame, Eye of Ra.




Through the yard the tanks come gunning,

charioteers laughing, goggles smeared with dust

and sun, scattering the toms slinking

along the blast wall holding back the waves


from washing away white crosses on the graves,

the motors roaring through the afternoon

like a cat fuck yowling on and on.

The gun turrets revolving in the cats’ eyes


swivel and shine, steel treads clanking,

sending the cats flying in an exodus

through brown brittle grass, the stalks

barely rippling as they pass.



After the last car bomb killed three soldiers

the army website labelled them “martyrs.”

Four civilians killed at checkpoints. Three on the airport road.

A young woman blown up by a grenade.


Facts and more facts...until the dead ones

climb up out of the graves, gashes on faces

or faces blown away like sandblasted stone

that in the boarded up museums’


fractured English “leaves the onlooker

riddled and shaken, nothing but a pathetic gaping...”

And then I remember the ancient archers

frozen between reverence and necessity—


who stare down the enemy, barbarians,

as it’s told, who nailed sacred cats to their shields,

knowing their foes outraged in their piety

would throw down their bows and wail like kittens.