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Tom Sleigh reads from Station Zed

February 17, on a writing assignment for the Bryant Park Poetry Series, I went to the Kinokuniya Bookstore at 1073 Avenue of the Americas to hear Tom Sleigh read from his new book, Station Zed, poems and prose about his experience traveling as a journalist through Lebanon, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Iraq for the past nine years, a writing assignment as inspirational as it was dangerous.



He read two homages, the first to Zidane, the French born soccer player of Berber descent who headbutted an Italian player during the 2006 World Cup, for insulting Algeria and his sister. Tom was in Lebanon at the time, and a mini-civil war had broken out, although everywhere he went what he heard were the games blasted out of every loudspeaker, radio and television, soccer like a warring humanity striving “in a fever to see the perfect goal,” but “the ball caught and caught and caught.” Tom tries to escape in the sea, but he can’t stay there, hearing a game from afar as he bobs in the oil slick waves that could easily drag him down.


Homage to Zidane

In all the cafés
on the seafront
whatever could be seen
kept exploding in riots

of blue, red, green—
horns everywhere hooting
for the ball soaring
toward the net.

Slicks of trash
and plastic glinting
from the waves, the world
was in a fever

to see the perfect goal,
the giant screens
on every corner
loud with the locust thrum

of satellite hookups.
Between two limestone cliffs
I plunged into the filth,
sucked a mouthful

of oil
and set out
swimming hard
to where I heard

rising voices
shouting in Arabic
Score Score.
A big wave swept

me under,
another and another,
until I shot out
of the water that gleamed

like a forehead butting mine,
expert but without malice
threatening to drag me down
until I slid out on the rocks.

I shivered, and wanted to live
in the clear light
of the announcers’ voices
echoing in different languages

weaving a net so fine

the sun could pass through it—

yet you could see
in instant replay

the ball caught and caught
and caught, and not one stitch
of that fabric
going taut.


Working for an international writing program organized by the University of Iowa, Tom met with students, literature professors, and writers at various universities in Iraq. He did a simple exercise based on a Joe Brainard poem, I Remember. The students prompted by the poem, remembered their childhoods and wrote about happy times. Then they were asked to write about What I Don’t Want To Remember. “It was an amazing transformation,” Tom said. “They wrote astonishing things, things they would not have told us in any other way.”

Homage to Basho, twenty pages of poetry and prose, recalls the Japanese poet, who left his hut to travel the roads in 17th Century Japan. All roads were dangerous, and to simply travel on one was an act of courage. But Basho survived to tell the tale.

Tom told us that he wasn’t very good at putting on a flack jacket; he fumbles with the straps and gets the cords all wrong until someone has to tie him in; he was no Brian Williams. From the vantage of a helicopter, safely above, at night, Tom looks down on one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces surrounded by a watery moat and topped with minarets more like a Thief of Baghdad Hollywood set than an indigenous real Iraq.

from Homage to Basho, the first part:

“What I have to say about my trip meanders the way the Tigris and Euphrates meander, and like those rivers in flood, is sometimes murky in intention, balked in its conclusions, and flows where it has to flow. In Iraq, in which the customs and conventions were often operating invisibly, or easily misinterpreted to be the same as mine, I suppose I gave up on telling a straightforward story. Instead, one night in a helicopter, what I felt in the air, so different from what was happening on the ground, made me realize that when you take an oath to tell the truth, you’re not telling that truth either to the judge or to the courtroom. Perhaps the point of the oath is to try to surround yourself with a lightness and solitude from which you can speak the truth, adding whatever light and shade you can so as to make “the how” implicate “the why.” After all, the judge and the members of the court weren’t riding in the helicopter, so a realistic description won’t mean anything to anyone unless you add that light and shade which only you, as the witness, could perceive.

But even then, in the helicopter roar, the truth may be hard to hear, even in your own ears.”

UN-1N

The light lift “Huey” rose from the floor of night
into the darkness of the brain
where it felt the sullen winds pushing it this way and that,

following the current of a thought
into a blankness and far-seeingness
that, as I rose in the actual chopper, released me

to confront the scabbard of Orion’s belt.
Behind him the scorpion menaced his exposed heel.
But then the rotor roar filled up the space between night sky

and ground-dark.
The imagination slipped down over my eyes
like a pair of night-vision goggles: what they showed me

was myself strapped in, staring down at Baghdad
at one of Saddam’s kitsch palaces
that looked like something out of The Thousand and One Nights

in which only Scheherazade’s unending flight of words
to keep the sultan from murdering her
can preserve her from his scimitar.

How picturesque the imagination
envisions the storied world lit up by infrared.
How the helicopter’s retracted doors letting in the cold night air

refreshed and restored the sultan in me
while putting under threat of death
the insurgent imagination that thinks it can talk its way

out of the void it hovers in, its blades rendered
an invisible blur as it holds its position
in the darkness, intent on the levitating heaviness

that allows it to convince itself, suspended
in the air,
that it’s really weightless.

Station Zed is published by Graywolf Press. You can check them out here:

http://www.graywolfpress.org/

Tom Sleigh

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