Tom Sleigh describes himself donning flak jacket and helmet, working as a journalist inside militarized war zones and refugee camps, as “a sort of Rambo Jr.” With self-deprecation and empathetic humor, these essays recount Sleigh’s experiences during several tours in Africa and in the Middle Eastern region once called Mesopotamia, “the land between two rivers.” Sleigh asks three central questions: What did I see? How could I write about it? Why did I write about it? The first essays focus on the lives of refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia, and Iraq. Under the conditions of military occupation, famine, and war, their stories can be harrowing, even desperate, but they’re also laced with wily humor and an undeluded hopefulness, their lives having little to do with their depictions in mass media. The second part of this book explores how writing might be capable of honoring the texture of these individuals’ experiences while remaining faithful to political emotions, rather than political convictions. Sleigh examines the works of Anna Akhmatova, Mahmoud Darwish, Ashur Etwebi, David Jones, Tomas Tranströmer, and others as guiding spirits. Concluding with a beautiful remembrance of Sleigh’s friendship with Seamus Heaney, the final essays meditate on youth, restlessness, illness, and Sleigh’s motivations for writing his own experiences in order to move out into the world.
“His stories from these war-torn places are sharply observed and humane . . . The second half of the book is a remarkable critical memoir, in which Sleigh writes perceptively about some of his poet heroes . . . What emerges is a uniquely personal take on the responsibilities of the poet and the potential for language to be ‘a form of care.’”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Wry and sharply observed, Sleigh’s book bears witness to injustice as it engages in a compelling, humane quest for artistic truth. Provocative and eye-opening work from a dedicated artist.”—Kirkus Reviews