Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Tom Sleigh looks for the mourner inside.

Tom Sleigh has an ongoing argument with God which comes to be little than how did He get the job when things in the poet’s life are going so badly? Or not badly enough.There is a strong aroma of dissatisfaction with the materials the poet's higher power has given him to write write about; making do , he resorts to big guns, large concepts each, and smothers the feelings. Sleigh is prone to write some of the saddest poems in his neighborhood, and sad fact accompanying his melancholic verse is that , from evidence presented here in Slate, writes with the sterile seriousness only the most mediocre scribes can manage. “Recording”, as is his style, has the narrator squinting too hard to see how the movements of air carries particles of God’s cloistered whimsy, squinting into dark corners in badly a badly lit room. This is a tragic scenario in which the loss of a dear friend incites the deeper pondering of the bends and dents that make up the mortal coil, but one cannot escape the feeling that even though his friend is the one who is dying, the poem is about something that is happening to the narrator. I imagine a mordant writer trying to enjoy his soup when he gets the call about his friend’s worsened condition, to which he frowns, grimaces, and says under breath damn, more psychic probing to do, damn it all…

The first word God said made everything
out of nothing. But the nothing shows through—
through his breathing on the tape casette,
so slow, so tentatively regular, so almost
at an end although it doesn't end but keeps
refreshing itself over in the quiet it's

recorded in, that it almost seems to float
in like a medium of water, deep down

near the bottom of something too dark
to see through

It might be a natural reaction for some to seek the higher order of things, to ponder the supernatural order behind this fatal happenstance and perhaps prepare a brief against the failing friend’s ignoble end, but Sleigh can’t seem to do anything except write himself into a syntactical muddle. These sentences go on at length and lose their emphasis, which is to say that unsold formless and without the vaguest impact; one may well be able to decipher the substance and themes of Sleigh’s dirge, but that’s merely a victory of critical reading, not a gift to the reader’s soul. Very little in Sleigh’s writerly world is serene , and the sour and souring experiences comprising his subjects are not things that can be, conveyed directly, clearly, with emphasis and impact. Poetry, above all other language arts, is the form which is best suited for the purposeful use of ambiguity, obscurity and a certain amount of cloaking of the terrain one speaks to, but there is a requirement, regardless of what aesthetic or revisionist manifesto that might direct a writer’s hand to at least create a sense of a situation, an emotional imbroglio, a scenario where the distinctions between ideas and forms collapse and language creates terse paradoxes that form the poetics of a severely mixed feelings.

Eliot, whom I assume is a major influence on Sleigh, merged his soul sickness with a richly honed physicality in the form of brilliantly scanned details. They had the effect of making the impossibly vague and indefinite qualities he tried to parlay into language comprehensible to his readers and established the grounds for empathy. One might not have been able to make literal sense from “Ash Wednesday”, but one did garner of sense of its conditions and recognize a human element that transcended Eliot’s vague discontents. What works in Eliot, though, is his ability to leave mention of his own nervous skin and jittery frame of mind and to project his psychological state onto the world his interior life filtered; there is the sense that the inane , the banal and commonplace items that compose the world he knew—breakfast nooks, asylums, cafes, salons , galleries—are transformed into constructs of melancholy, decadence and decline, and yet there remains that it is the experience of the reticent speaker , his drawn-down point of view, that colors and characterizes the environment. His universe was a series of broken dioramas with scenes whose imagery could elicit several generations of critical interpretation that has yet to exhaust Eliot’s text. The author was smart enough not to, in Tom Wolf’s phrase describing Mailer’s fiction “lard things up” with an excess of thinking.

This was the particular miracle in Eliot’s poems that he could exteriorize his feelings and spiritual desolation without analyzing them into inert specimens. Sleigh needs to occupy the states of mind he gives to the page, to declare his ownership of this melancholy and to continue to define the terms of the loss he’s feeling, and it’s this emphasis that makes recording overwrought; hearkening back to an earlier idea that he was irritated by this tragedy at some deep level, he overwrites to the extent that it reads as if he’s attempting to compensate for a lack of first response, and so he plumes the depths of his vocabulary
to construct a suitable model for the depth of his grief. It comes off as strained, convoluted, and unconvincing. Unconvincing for me, at least.

His breathing
is the breath that makes me catch my own breath

coming into my lungs as the sound comes
into my ears and into my brain and into some where

inside me I know is being hollowed out
by each breath of his preparing a nothing

that is so dark and seamless I lose sight
of him being borne away on the currents

of his breathing that inflates into the everything
the nothing wants to be.

When he lay there,

shrinking back away from sunset, the nurse said
his fear was common, called "sundowning."

And when he finally settled down, and later sank
into a coma, he began breathing just this way,

breath flowing out, flowing in, while the nothing
moved on the face of everything and God
climbed down into the rising of it.

This is much ado about the sound and sight of another invading his own senses and how such a case of powerlessness places one in a whispered contact with a concrete yet mysterious inevitability , a real response for anyone who has watched a loved one die, but I particularly resent is Sleigh’s relentless application of the first person “I”, the melodramatic presentation of his internal brooding and symptoms of grief; this is the stuff of the science fiction trope of the android constantly monitoring and analyzing it’s reactions and responses to incidents in order to gauge how close to being genuinely “human” he has become. All through this piece , one is not convinced that the narrator has actually gotten in touch with that well of grief , has gone through the variously stages of coming to terms with a dear loss, and has turned that experience into a strength. Or at least a good poem. “Recording” is an apt and ironic title; moods, flights of dementia, physical reactions are made note of and there is an attempt to duplicate them and reveal the submerged essence of it all in imaginative writing that does not , over all, evoke more than a fictionalized, formula-bound tragedy. It’s an image one finds in a script, with directions for the camera , nicely articulated notes for where the lens should focus , which shoulder to peer over, closing in at just the right speed until we come upon the narrator, sitting alone, holding a cassette recorder; then the music fades and the sounds of the breathing fills the screen. Next , the music raises again as the narrator lifts his head and peers into a corner spot in the ceiling; we hear rain drops. This resembles nothing so much as a dozen closing shots in episodes of “ER”

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