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Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh's Space Walk (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) won the Kingsley Tufts Award. His new book, Army Cats, was published in Spring, 2011. He has won many awards, including the Shelley Prize, grants from the Lila Wallace Fund, both the John Updike Award and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is currently a Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He teaches in the M.F.A. program at Hunter College.


Don't look behind you is what I remember telling myself,
scared in the prison opening all around me,
for encircling me were tiers of cells and walkways

in a circle leading up to the skylit dome where a dozen birds
whirled among the Russian prisoners you could visit by paying
a few roubles. They dressed in black uniforms, wore flat black caps

and pushed mops and buckets in front of their black boots,
the slopping water driving a mouse down the corridor,
mops leaving a slick of soap drying on stone floors.

When the doors closed behind me, I could hear
the room I'd been in go silent and the room I was entering
grow louder—and then there weren't any more prisoners,

no white nights, there was just me and the triage nurse
and my urine sample—black—what have I done wrong
or what has gone wrong and what more is

going wrong before it can't be helped? And then a Mr. Mohammed,
from Queens, one foot amputated, the other an open wound
wound in bandages, began to shout, despite his diabetes,

Bring me my apple juice! I am a son of Prince Abdullah!
And the nurse brought him a little juice box
but asked him about sugar, should he be drinking sugar,

and he told her apple juice was fine, it was orange juice
that was bad as she quieted him down
by patting his arm—but then he started shouting, Ice! Ice!

what kind of hospital is this that you don't give us ice,
and so she brought him ice and quieted him
down by patting his arm, until he asked her in a voice

that already knew the answer, Do you think my foot
stinks? Tell me what you smell.
But despite the smell,
and despite the old man groaning in the bed next

to mine, his smashed hip still unnumbed by morphine, dilaudid,
even oxycontin, while his daughter keeps pleading
with him, saying, so gently, for what seems like hours, Dad,

please, you have to keep covered up
—despite the metronomic
drip of the IV in my arm, the countrapuntal
beep of the heart monitors, my panic

begs me to let it go—I'm not going to die, am I? No, not
this time, maybe another, my mind skittering off
into crevices and corners to sniff out

some crumbs left by one of the prisoners who so tames me
that I creep into his hand to eat out of his fingers —and when
I finally do die, he'll put me in a cigarette pack and lay me

under the cross in the exercise yard in the insomniac white nights,
while over the wall, littering the parking lot, lie hundreds
of messages the prisoners write on paper scraps they fold into darts

and through toilet paper rolls joined painstakingly
together into long blowguns, blow out
through the barred windows to be picked up by

what must be mothers, sisters, girlfriends since all of them
are women unfolding and reading and putting
the messages in their purses, ready to send them on

to the address written inside, until they get tired
of reading and leave the rest unread, glinting
under arc lights, each crisp fold relaxing in the summer air.


Poets in Person:
C.K. Williams


Robert Bly
Climbing into Bed


Susan Wheeler
From "The Split"