House of Fact, House of Ruin
by Tom Sleigh
Graywolf Press, $16.00, 120 pp.
House of Fact, House of Ruin is a companion book to Tom Sleigh’s The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in the Age of Refugees. Both books focus journalistically on Sleigh’s several stints in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia, and Iraq. Graywolf Press, who published both Sleigh’s essay collection and the corresponding collection of poetry, describes the project as “ask[ing] three central questions: What did I see? How could I write about it? Why did I write about it?” In this ambitious and timely project, we see a poet grappling with a dangerous and uncomfortable situation, which (despite a number of news articles and stories) is still largely unseen by many Americans. Also, speaking to the question of “why did I write about it,” Sleigh allows the world of these poems to splinter and fracture existing worldviews and ideas of self in order to make room for reconsideration and transformation.
A risk, perhaps, of Sleigh’s project is the potential difficulty of transmuting of-the-moment concerns of politics and war into the transcendent, time-defying stuff of poetry. However, given the subject matter of war-torn nations and refugee crises, it is interesting to note what things Sleigh chooses not to say about his subjects, the arguments he doesn’t make. House of Fact, House of Ruin, for instance, is not a book about rhetorical and political arguments concerning the morality and ethics of this or that war. Nor is it a plea of persuasion to one political side or another. Instead, Sleigh attempts simply to document and chronicle existence as it actually is in an actual place, and indeed House of Fact, House of Ruin accomplishes such accounting with extraordinary detail. We see “the militia commander napping in the front seat,” or we are told of “the patient with the catheter released from the hospital // for just one night who goes home to his wife / and they figure out a way to make love.” These human details and many others allow Sleigh’s readers to enter a space and experience of the war-torn Middle East in a profound and engaging way.
Again and again Sleigh’s speakers use the reality of a moment—its material facts and discomforts—as an anchoring principle. There is always a hesitance to venture too far away from the observably true. In “A Drone in the Promised Land” we learn, along with Sleigh’s speaker, the shapes that our bullets make—“thumb-sized for AK, / fist-sized for 20, two fists for 50,” and we are forced into an embodied recognition the realities of war.
In Sleigh, we get a poet who knows how to stay out of his own way, relying on a detailed accounting of truth to inject human emotion into a situation that is vaguely abstract for many Americans. In the context of a sociopolitical climate where real people are often converted to a statistic and used as mere evidence to argue a point, Sleigh’s genuine attention and documentation of a lived reality is refreshingly vital.
In some cases, Sleigh’s speakers seem even to make the case that such attention and documentation do something to counteract the world’s ubiquitous violence and destruction. For instance, in “List” readers are made to confront the dehumanizing brutality of a “list of who will be terminated, imprisoned, tortured.” Where else would a human being be nothing more than a data point than on such a list? Yet for Sleigh’s speaker, “Ashur, Mohammed, Ali come back to life / as I scribble down their names and…the dead men staring back from between these letters, / faces lit up for a moment as they share a smoke, / turn away from me, shrugging their shoulders.” In House of Fact, House of Ruin Sleigh adopts a poetics of witness as a means of countering anonymous, humanless violence, and the results are consistently stunning.
Eventually, the practice of expressing grief for lost people and things turns itself inward. As the book progresses, it becomes more driven by the first person perspective and transfers Sleigh’s unwavering attention to more personal matters. “Funeral Oration,” for example, imagines what the speaker’s funeral might be like were he there to share the experience. The collection also features movingly heartfelt poems written in memory of Philip Levine and Mark Strand, as well as poems dedicated to Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Slovenian poet Ales Debeljak. These poems of personal dedication serve as a unique and symbolic counterpoint to earlier dedicatory poems such as “For a Libyan Militia Member” and “Lady Justice,” a poem dedicated to journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by the Islamic State. Interestingly, Sleigh deliberately forefronts the poems of historical dedication by placing them at the front of the book, perhaps suggesting that the best way toward personal expression is through public witness.
This shift of focus also leads to an examination of the ways in which modes of thinking such as instinct, emotion, and historical contextualization can get humans into trouble. Ultimately, this line of inquiry leads to a deep questioning of assumptions about selfhood.
Specifically, Sleigh bravely interrogates some of American literature’s operative assumptions, taking on such figures of ideology as Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway. “Negatives,” for example, takes as its subject the notion that Whitman’s romantic notions of life and death may be somewhat irrelevant and harmful to certain aspects of today’s world. Whitman, like Sleigh, was a deliberate witness of war and spent time “writing the dying soldiers’ last letters” and “keeping vigil.” The consideration of Whitman, however, begs the question of whether or not such attentions to war fetishize death at the expense of the dying for the sake of artistic expression. After all, isn’t it the privilege of relative safety that allows the poet to wax romantically about death? And how much of such waxing is performative? We are told “the inmates didn’t so much look for [Whitman] under their bootsoles as / trample [him] under their regulation shoes from maquiladoras.” Then. later, we overhear soldiers interrogating the poet’s ideological remove, saying “doesn’t this guy know that in a hospital the reason for flowers // is to cover up the smell?” The interrogation of Whitman does not exactly resolve itself, but the fact that Sleigh prevents the question from going unasked bespeaks a veracity of intent that informs the rest of the book.
In a similar way, Sleigh turns an ambivalent eye toward American literary tradition in his poem “Hannah Reading Hemingway,” where the speaker wonders if Hemingway’s brand of art offers any pragmatic benefit to a daughter of today’s time. Is this cultural inheritance, where “some form of despair / might one day be your despair” really what we ought to be passing down to future generations? The speaker seems unsure about convincing his daughter toward his “mad Tom world,” worrying if the appeals of such a world are only “quaintly reassuring” compared to “what really might be coming.” Ultimatlely, the question of what will be inherited comes to a head poignantly when the speaker demands to know “what will outlive our disappearing?” As in the Whitman case, the question is never satisfactorily answered, but the reader feels profoundly moved and informed by being forced to ask it.
In an entirely different way, Sleigh applies his radical questioning of the process of selfhood to ideologies of religion, patriotism, instinct, and masculinity. The existential arc of the book moves from a full-fledged accounting of the situation in the Middle East to an earnest examination of the ways in which our modes of thought must change to accommodate and incorporate the realities of that situation. Rather than ignoring realities that would problematize our views of the world, Sleigh encourages his readers to let those realities in so that their worldviews may be shattered and made again anew.