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Tom Sleigh

Three Wishes

Down the side of a yellow plastic soap dish, struggling

in soap muck, one of those tiny black ants

that can find a crack in the invisible

flees from the AK of my shadow, and looks

about to spring into the unparted Red Sea

of scum and froth that slimes its feelers

as it rubs and rubs its body

like a tarnished lamp with a genie inside

waiting to pour out in a cloud of diesel-smoke

from the refineries in Basra

before resolving into a human shape of fire:


could the ant be a sultan bewitched

into the body of an ant? Is that why I hear it say,

Genie, build me a palace!

And in just one night, the genie builds

the Green Zone, it builds what the diplomats

call “the anthill”: two Olympic

swimming pools, tennis courts, the D-Fac,

barracks and offices for contractors and Marines,

the gym’s row on row of elliptical machines,

my block of prefab trailers behind twenty-foot-high blast walls

and protected by a corrugated steel roof against incoming

so that it’s always five p.m. no matter the time of day.


My sultan stares at its bewitched body

like body armor it can’t take off reflected

in the shallow sea inside the soap dish.

above my head, crossing the craters and shell holes

of a ceiling tile, a red ant rubs the lamp of its own body.

first wish: to be the slingstone

muttering to the wound in Goliath’s forehead.

Second wish: to trick the invaders into flying away

on the magic carpet of an IED.

Third wish: to make the blast walls vanish

so there’s no Green Zone, only a Red Zone.


But now my sultan staggers as if drugged,

moving like a patient moves in a locked psych ward,

some neurotoxin is destroying the genie

inside the sultan’s brain, it staggers up the soap dish,

balances woozily on the rim, and then falls into water,

legs and feelers waving weakly until I lift it free

on my finger, wondering if it’s going to die, and set it down

on the formica where the sultan lurches and jerks along

and vanishes into the crack between sink and mirror.


First wish: to keep away the Annihilator.

Second wish: to speak the language of the wound.

Third wish: to trick the genie back into the lamp.



It isn't camels and sheep and an underground house
or an abandoned oasis, the shaded grass littered with fallen dates.

It isn't tankers lined up on the horizon,
or sand dunes asking nothing and giving nothing as they creep.

It isn't the sculpture of a golden fist crushing a fighter jet,
or graffiti shouting Death or Freedom.

It's the way vodka in the house of the imam
can be hidden in a plastic water bottle.

It's Ashur's unpublished papers on prostrate cancer,
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.

It's what the German doctor whose name means "joy"
meant by the psychopathology of nations.

It's the joke about bullets being fired off into the air
because the air makes such a good target not even a blind man can miss.

It's not the houses burned, the young men shot or kidnapped,
it's not the anti-aircraft guns positioned where your house was.

It's what no one will say about what no one else will say.
It's what anyone who knows what they shouldn't say knows.

It's what the Revolution whispers about one war everywhere
in the ear of a drone watching a camel

rippling through heatwaves on a screen.

The Fox

Marine helicopters on maneuver kept dipping
toward swells at Black's Beach, my board's poise
giving way to freefall of my wave tubing

over me, nubs of wax under my feet as I crouched
under the lip, sped across the face and kicked out—
all over Southern Cal a haze settled: as if light breathed

that technicolor smog at sunset over
San Diego Harbor where battleships at anchor,
just back from patrolling the South China Sea, were

having rust scraped off and painted gray.
This was my inheritance that lay stretched before me:
Which is when I felt the underbrush give way

and the fox that thrives in my brain,
not looking sly but just at home in his pelt
and subtle paws, broke from cover and ran

across the yard into the future to sniff my gravestone,
piss, and move on. And so I was reborn into
my long nose and ears, my coat's red, white, and brown

giving off my fox smell lying heavy on the winds
in the years when I'd outsmart guns, poison,
dogs and wire, when the rooster and his hens

clucked and ran, crazy with terror
at how everything goes still in that way a fox adores,
gliding through slow-motion drifts of feathers.

-from House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018) selected by Spring 2021 Guest Editor Cyrus Cassells. 

Tom Sleigh is the author of ten books of poetry, including Army Cats, winner of the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Space Walk which won the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Award. In addition, Far Side of the Earth won an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Dreamhouse was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and The Chain was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize. Station Zed was published in 2015 and includes his long poem about Iraq, “Homage to Basho,” a version of which received Poetry Magazine’s Editors Prize. In 2018 a book of prose collecting his essays on refugees in the Middle East and Africa, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In An Age Of Refugees, is being published simultaneously by Graywolf Press as a companion piece to House of Fact, House of Ruin, his latest book of poems. He has also published a previous book of essays, Interview With a Ghost, and a translation of Euripides' Herakles. Widely anthologized, his poems and prose appear in The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Yale Review, Threepenny, The Village Voice, and other literary magazines, as well as The Best of the Best American Poetry, The Best American Poetry, Best American Travel Writing, and The Pushcart Anthology. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, a Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin, a Fellowship at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, an Individual Writer's Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, a Guggenheim grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, among many others. 

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