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Pick of the Week

Tom Sleigh: Pick of the Week [ed. Terence Winch]

Tom Sleigh. Photo by Annette Hornischer


















A Dictator Walks into a Bar

In the hotel lobby, leaning against a marble column
from when the Romans ruled, I sip my vodka as gunfire
night and day ricochets in celebration


punctuating someone's wedding or a moment in
someone's mood in which blowing
off a clip into the air fights off boredom:


in this cellphone video that's more slashes of light,
jiggle and jag than a stable point of view,
I watch them drag him from muck out


of a culvert, his kufi knocked askew,
heavy body thrown across a Toyota battle wagon
where an electrical engineer turned militia man,


who reminds me of my father, mild, unshowy, studiously
polite, doesn't smile, frown, as he
watches himself slapping, in the footage that he's


showing me, the Brother Leader, great Murshid,
the Guide—doesn't comment, doesn't shy away
from my oh so fine-tuned sensitivities


quivering on the brink, maybe a little drunk, my cloak of objectivity
already tattering into rags—his lumps, welts
not quite bleeding—unable to look away,


am I hoping to see blood? It isn't every day that a dictator writhes under
your heel—the one powerful enough to say
Those who do not love me do not deserve to live—


as if he himself were the soul in the body politic and we
were just an afterthought, accessory
to his glory, the merest janitors to his trash, or maybe


just the trash itself, all of us human trash
waiting to be burned. But now, it's our turn,
and we've got him where we want him—


his livid puffy face, its blankness unto death
like slopped over paint running down the can—
his nose by now smashed in so his mouth


hangs open to the blahness of desert hardpan cliffs shadowing
tank tracks back into the Nafusa Mountains
where just an hour ago we were driving and he was worrying


about load-shedding and high-voltage grids,
the tragedy of no infrastructure—while I was daydreaming
of vodka and peeling happy hour shrimp


glinting like armor plate—finally, I've seen enough; but as I
turn to give him back his phone he's moved down
the bar and seems, head bowed, to be


peering into his drink with that intimate anticipation
that could signal a joke or a prayer speeding
to its punchline, only it's the new kind


of humor, the new kind of prayer,
in which the jokes aren't funny and prayers don't deliver,
and whether you're praying or laughing, it's all on you.


Tom Sleigh is the author of eleven books of poetry including winner of the 2023 Paterson Poetry Prize The King’s Touch (Graywolf Press, 2022), House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018), Station Zed (Graywolf Press, 2015), and Army Cats (Graywolf Press, 2011). His most recent book of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees (Graywolf Press, 2018) recounts his time as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, NEA grant recipient, and winner of numerous awards including the Kingsley Tufts Award, Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, John Updike Award and Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His poems appear in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Threepenny Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Raritan, The Common and many other magazines. He is a Distinguished Professor in the MFA Program at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn, NY.  [Author photo by Annette Hornischer.]


Wall painting  Tripoli  Libya                                                                                       Wall painting, Tripoli, Libya

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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