Sleigh, Tom 1953-
SLEIGH, Tom 1953-
PERSONAL: Born 1953, in Mount Pleasant, TX; married Ellen Driscoll (a visual artist and sculptor). Education: Attended California Institute of the Arts; Johns Hopkins University, M.A., 1977.
CAREER: Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, professor of English and creative writing, 1986—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Prize, 1983, for After One; Waking was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 1990-91; The Dreamhouse was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry; Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters; Individual Writers' Award, Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund; Shelley Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America; grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Ingram Merrill Foundations, and the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA.
After One (poetry), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1983.
Waking (poetry), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1990.
The Chain (poetry), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL) 1996.
The Dreamhouse (poetry), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2000.
(Translator) Euripides, Herakles, introduction and notes by Christian Wolff, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Rubber (play), first performed by the Hudson Exploited Theater Company, Midtown International Theatre Festival, 2002.
Far Side of the Earth (poetry), Houghton (Boston, MA), 2003.
Advisory editor, Agni Review; contributing editor, Boston Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Award-winning writer Tom Sleigh has made a name for himself as a poet who is not afraid to mine the roots of Western literature for allusions and imagery and has won critical acclaim in the process. Among the more attractive qualities of his verse, critics cite his far-ranging allusions, about which Poetry contributor Andrew Frisardi commented, "There is a strong impression . . . of a sensibility shuttling between worlds, mercurial, unable to clamber fully on to either shore." Sleigh has developed an individual poetic voice, one that has made him, in the words of one Tikkun reviewer, "one of the few poets writing whose visionary reach extends book by book with a deepening requisite technique."
Sleigh's first verse collection, After One, offers understated meditations on people and landscapes. He looks at nature, friendship, and family relationships and the paradoxes of fate. He finds ways to review the world with a "skewed vision" which reinterprets it with striking images and symbols, in a "spare, sharply crafted, strange book," according to a Booklist critic. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Sleigh's poems are "musical to the ear and original in their use of words."
In Waking, his second volume, Sleigh's "uncanny ear and raw nerve endings are evident," according to Liz Rosenberg in the New York Times Book Review. This collection opens in the afterlife and progresses backwards through various states of experience. The major poem is "Ending," a monologue on illness, the apprehension of death, and recovery: "My doctor tells me I am lucky, / That someone in my condition lives more intensely; / That if my condition grows stable / I could live a long time—but then he knits his brows." "Endings" is followed by sections on love, public life, and family relations. In the final section, which includes poems that Boston Review critic Stuart Dischell called "among the best in the collection," Sleigh turns to the foundations of his being, "the root cellar" of family history. For Dischell, Sleigh writes "from the most extreme of sensibilities to the common area where we citizens share our lives."
In The Chain Sleigh explores both memory and the nature of memory. Many of the recollections concern childhood trauma, especially sexual abuse as recalled in psychotherapy. In "Some Larger Motion," two lovers, each abused as children, "Touch each other's bodies while the bodies / Hold inside the touch of hands that each one / Wanted and was shamed by." The last section of The Chain concerns the final illness and death of Sleigh's father. These poems are "unflinchingly honest and real," as Frisardi put it in a Poetry assessment. The father's condition is both a dissolution and a becoming: "Already / He filters the dark water through gills aligned / To strain the element he more and more resembles." These are, Frisardi declared, "some of Sleigh's finest" yet. Library Journal contributor Graham Christian maintained that Sleigh is capable of "breathtaking, somber lyricism" and added that his writing resembles an image taken from "The Climb": "like lightning through a cloud / Shifting and freezing at each flash."
Like many writers who have had success writing in a particular genre, Sleigh decided to stretch his talent by writing in another medium. After reading Adam Hoslschild's King Leopold's Ghost, which is about the king of Belgium and the rubber trade in nineteenth-century Africa, Sleigh decided to write a contemporary play about that topic. Thus he created Rubber, a modern political fable set in an imaginary African country and revolving around the relationship between a black general in charge of the nation's internal security and his white male assistant, the son of a former officer when the country was under colonial rule. According to Boston Globe reporter Catherine Foster, Rubber received "a warm reception" when it premiered at the Third Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival in the summer of 2002. Director Tom Cole was pleased then the play came together and that it "doesn't have that flat-footed feel that you get from writers who have imbibed their rhythms from television." "It's really beautiful," Cole enthused.
Sleigh's more recent poetry collection Far Side of the Earth, "marks him as a poet of extremes, crafting a poetics from the dark and the dire, investigating the ways love and death intersect in our everyday lives," to quote Robin Becker in American Poetry Review. In these poems Sleigh engages both physical and metaphysical concerns, history and myth; he contemplates traffic and train wrecks, ghosts, and mass burial sites past and present. "Bridge," an elegy for a woman suffering Alzheimer's disease, exemplifies the tone of the work for "grief . . . dominates this carefully calibrated book," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor. According to a Virginia Quarterly Review poetry editor, while Sleigh's "voice is direct and authoritative, his images sharp, his lines taut but not strained. . ., [the longer] poems lack drama." Sleigh employs imagery that "moves deftly from contemporary America to ancient Greek world," as in "New York American Spell, 2001" a nine-part sequence about the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City. In a collagist fashion, the poet mixes conversations, incantations, and liturgy—for example, spells from Greek Magical Papryi, a lamentation from a Sumerian spell dating from 2000 B.C.—with modern reactions to the New York City tragedy. In the process, "Sleigh describes, laments, narrates, questions, speculates, and seeks protection and wisdom," Becker explained.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Poetry Review, July-August, 1991, Susan Stewart, review of Waking, pp. 12-13; March-April, 1993, Alan Williamson, review of Waking, pp. 33-35; November-December, 2003, Robin Becker, "The Poetics of Extreme Engagement," pp. 19-20.
Booklist, November 1, 1983, review of After One, p. 392; March 15, 1996, Elizabeth Millard, review of The Chain, pp. 123-124; April 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Far Side of the Earth, p. 1370.
Boston Globe, July 28, 2002, Catherine Foster, A Poet Goes Far Afield for His First Script, p. L3.
Boston Review, December, 1991, Stuart Dischell, review of Waking, pp. 36-37.
Library Journal, December 1, 1983, pp. 2253-2254; March 1, 1996, Graham Christian, review of The Chain, p. 82; October 15, 1999, Rochelle Ratner, review of The Dreamhouse, p. 73.
Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003, Carol Muske-Dukes, Poet's Corner, p. R17.
New York Times Book Review, May 20, 1984, Robert Pack, review of After One, p. 37; June 30, 1991, Liz Rosenberg, review of Waking, p. 26; May, 1997, Andrew Frisardi, review of The Chain, pp. 104-106; April 23, 2000, David Kirby, review of The Dreamhouse, p. 18; April 20, 2003, David Orr, review of Far Side of the Earth, p. 24.
Partisan Review, summer, 1993, Michael Collier, review of Waking, pp. 496-500.
Ploughshares, spring, 1991, Gail Mazur, review of Waking, p. 232; spring, 1996, H. L. Hix, review of The Chain, pp. 200-201.
Poetry, May, 1997, Andrew Frisardi, review of The Chain, pp. 104-106; December, 2000, Bill Christophersen, review of The Dreamhouse, p. 217.
Publishers Weekly, October 7, 1983, review of After One, p. 86; September 7, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of Waking, p. 80; October 25, 1999, review of The Dreamhouse, p. 77; March 31, 2003, review of Far Side of the Earth, pp. 58-59.
Tikkun, September-October, 2003, "Poetry Sikkum," p. 80.
Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 1991, Glyn Maxwell, review of Waking, p. 12.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 2000, review of Dreamhouse.
Washington Post, April 13, 2003, Edward Hirsch, Poet's Choice, p. T12.*