Two Poems by Tom Sleigh

BOMB 65 Fall 1998

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Raft

Dr. Pepper and the Bible on the shelf together, a tricycle
                      laying tracks through
the rare snow of a Texas winter, a new green Plymouth Valiant
with fins and a V-6, a drive-in theater screen, blacks to the left,
                              whites right,
      ripples on water like the damned being
                     winnowed from the saved;
              oh black-browed history, on your raft
we float, your raft cobbled from dead languages, bones, fires,
        dust-hung fields sprouting pylons, towers, domes,
from rivering taxis, radio waves, wide pre-reflecting eyes channeling
               through the city’s circuit-woven brain
enwound with subway vaults and girdered catacombs
                       while Lethe’s waters open
                            to swallow
               us, languorous, taking their time …
As boys, my brothers and I found logs strapped with fraying rope
         and drifting on a pond, Tony’s Grove—
                          the mountains fell
                sheer into still water that trapped
feathers, leaves, berries, bark, fishbones, beaver bones,
the heaviness of water dragging it all down:
 
                        Sharp-eyed presence,
buoy us up on this raft once made of logs but now
                 only of words, from traces
of woodsmoke and frying pan, from saplings chewed by beaver
                          and beaver stuffed
and staring back from dim vitrines, from huts and treasure hoards
                                hidden in
        back alleys of apartment buildings crumbling
the way aqueducts, temples, menhirs, dolmens crumbled
                          and were scavenged
for cornerstones to celebrate new gods and ward off
                demons and mad souls
trapped in trees, from TV warriors noble as the Roman
Marius and barbarian Jugurtha, from Cassius Clay
                           who rose up
       Muhammad Ali once Liston from
the Lewiston Penitentiary went down, taciturn Liston moving
stolid in the ring, from dynasties of Yankees
               Ford, Mantle, Maris,
          from Giant Mays of the basket catch
and Willie McCovey the slugger and the high-kicking windup
              of fastballer Marichal
while the basement bombshelter in hushed silence attends
                         devotions of
              canned goods gleaming on steel shelves,
from wires crisscrossing, sparking, fusing in the overloaded brain,
oh gone and battered traces all lashed together with intricate knots
                memory now fumbles to untie:
 
                        Again we step
onto the raft riding low under our weight, the logs’ gaps
         letting water seep through that rots the rope
even as we splash one another, wrestle, dive … sit drifting on
the raft, a chill on the ripples as sun feathers
              behind a peak and the pond
reflects our faces peering over the raft’s edge, our faces
                                     so calm—
                         faces of brothers
unconscious of past or future, who lie on a raft
          in cool negligence of each other’s presence,
adrift, absorbed, our swimming suits drying, then dried.
 

Speech for Myself as a Ghost

“Whoever I was, whatever I may have done, speaks to me
and you now in the voice of this rainy light carrying us back
to where moments ago I was the steam rising from your coffee

and then further back to a room made shadowy by sunlight,
a Murphy bed hidden by red curtains, and bottle brush blooms
that hummingbirds needle with such appetite;

and then to a wheelchair where your father sits and stares
not knowing that we’re there, and back further to when
hot milk scalds my tongue, an air raid siren blares,

mosquitoes buzz grainy as newsreel bombs
that fall in clusters in the drive-in’s dark, the projector’s beam
wavering through those bloodsipping swarms

—and back to where the door the dead enter so freely
it’s as if they hadn’t died opens to orchard rows
of cherry trees whitening the air as crows, flocking, fly

branch to branch, a stick beats time to caw caw caw caw,
an irrigation ditch fills while the promised land
brims over its reflection until it swamps the window

so that now we hear what throbs in each marrow bone:
a phantom heartbeat that, slowly counting down,
echoes in the iced over sectors of the brain

where ghosts crowding to hear that fading pulse
meld with one another mist into mist
and melt back into the wash of uncreated Chaos

( … that place in which nothing gestures to nothing else,
least of all this voice straining to reach you widowed
by these words that suddenly ring false)

—your coffee gone lukewarm as under dormant boughs
a trash fire ignites a drop of rain
coolly transparent through migrant shadows.”

Tom Sleigh is the author of four books of poetry, After One, WakingThe Chain, and The Dreamhouse, forthcoming in Fall 1999. His play, Ahab’s Wife, was just performed at Snug Harbor Cultural Center as part of the Henson Foundation’s International Festival of Puppet Theater.

Related
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Originally published in

BOMB 65, Fall 1998
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