Tom Sleigh’s latest poetry collection, The King’s Touch, contains multitudes. It’s not a terribly long book—116 pages including section break pages, notes, and acknowledgements, in line with the average length of full-length poetry collections—but there is a lot between its covers.1
The work is split into four sections, the fourth of which only contains four poems; the collection starts with a cryptic, mood-setting epigraph from Seamus Heaney (“High cries were felled and a pure change happened”); the poems’ forms range: multiple are written in numbered sections while a lone, breathless prose poem appears roughly midway through;2 there are dubious neologisms (“NGOers”) and capitalization is used for effect (“the dog’s flesh crawled with an intelligence / of its own while those maggots declaimed / the higher virtues of the high-minded / Oppression Freedom Freedom from Oppression Law / Order Law and Order Dialectics / of the Dispossessed”); and finally, there are the titles, many are witty and several are quite wordy, i.e., “A Man Plays Debussy for a Blind, Eighty-Four-Year-Old Female Elephant.”
Then there’s what the poems are actually about. The title, as Sleigh’s notes explain, “refers to the traditional belief that the king, as God’s divine representative, can lay hands on the sick and heal them,” and the collection’s title poem was written, as Sleigh indicates, “after an MRI,” “lit by my own storm-light flickering.”3
In addition to poems about mortality and health—if The King’s Touch has a central theme, it is mortality—there is a fair amount of war, a little bit of COVID, and much musing on the state of the world and on aging (Sleigh was born in 1953).
The collection begins, literally, with youthful imagery and ends in mature reflection; its first poem, “Youth,” starts with the incongruously beautiful wartime scene of twin boys chasing each other in Aleppo, where “[d]ay by day these teatime mortars / keep pecking at the blast wall but the boys / have grown so used to it they keep on playing.” And the final poem of The King’s Touch, “Age of Wonder,” ends with Sleigh’s speaker ruminating on both the past (“our age of wonder”) and the future, closing with the lines “And as for the age, the wonder is that the age / lasted this long. And now that’s over, // we can still live, can’t we, inside its fading, as if it were the future / that year by year we age backward toward?” The result of starting and ending the collection in this way is that the reader accompanies Sleigh, sort of, on a journey toward death. The end never feels far away in The King’s Touch.
War is a recurring theme; a number of the poems in The King’s Touch draw on Sleigh’s experience working as a journalist in various conflict-riven countries (Syria, Iraq, and Somalia, to name a few), something he’s also written about in his essay collection The Land Between Two Rivers and two books of poetry, House of Fact, House of Ruin and Station Zed.4
The conflict poems (for lack of a better term) are invariably gripping, especially when they involve the speaker learning how to use a rocket-propelled grenade, as in “Practice Range.” And, as if an RPG poem isn’t heavy enough on its own, Sleigh’s decision to reveal, via a note below the poem’s title, that “Practice Range” takes place in Erbil, Kurdistan lends the poem additional significance. The Kurds have been fighting for their independence for much of their existence as a people. Simply setting a piece of writing in Erbil lends that piece dramatic and historical weight.
But Sleigh’s simply having been in places like Erbil to witness and record scenes like those in “Practice Range” aren’t why it and the other journalistic/witness poems in The King’s Touch work so well. Sleigh’s deft hand, attention to detail, and literary experience make him an ideal interlocutor. Overall, The King’s Touch is at its best when the work is grounded in a specific event or place. Another example of this is the first stanza of “Up the Hill”:
Love is nothing but a mattress made of needles. The young soldier on guard stops me from climbing any higher up the hill, he points me the way back down along a track of barbwire and overgrown flowering vines wreathing the wire as a kind of trellis. But before I turn around, I offer him a cigarette, and we stand there, smoking. He doesn’t ask me anything, and since I don’t speak his language, we look first at each other, then squint down at the sea funneling the rich, briny, low-tide much mixed with sewage, diesel.
The King’s Touch is Sleigh’s fourteenth book. He’s the author of ten previous books of poetry, two essay collections, and a translation of Euripedes’s Herakles. His first book, After One, was published in 1983, and since then Sleigh has won numerous awards for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and two from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. All of which may make it difficult for Sleigh, or his editors, to resist an occasionally misguided impulse.
Three poems from The King’s Touch—”Migration,” “Black Dog, White Dog,” and the aforementioned lone prose poem, “Breaker”—offer examples of the book’s weaker moments. In the case of “Breaker,” that it’s the only prose poem is incongruous, but more than that the piece feels almost self-indulgent, or as if it wants to be line edited. The poem does have its moments, particularly this line (emphasis mine):
Sitting here alone, staring at the cement water tower on top of the old brick housing complex, the leaves on the plane trees faintly turning yellow, shuffling in the light breeze, how do all these hours enter into one life that keeps telling me, none too convincingly, that it’s mine?
“Migration,” meanwhile, is about a “wild, profane grandma” embarrassing her grandson during a baseball game, and though the overall thrust of the poem is interesting it takes its time getting there (Sleigh buries the lede, so to speak) and the scene of an “ashamed grandson and crazy grandma” overstays its welcome. Finally, the fourth stanza of “Black Dog, White Dog”—particularly its last line—contains the sort of line-level mishap that appears from time to time throughout The King’s Touch:
Ask me whose dog I am bleeding in the dream, ask me why my master’s voice spreads cell by cell, ask yourself whose soul is barking at you now, and whose SIT GOD DAMN IT SIT lashes in your ears.
That said, there are so many delightful moments sprinkled throughout the book, often appearing mid-poem like a surprise (such as “My age of wonder assaults me in the mirror: / is this still me lying next to you?” from “Age of Wonder”), that I wanted, greedily, for them to be everywhere, with no blemishes between.
But one must take the world as it’s given to us, warts and mutating coronaviruses and all. In The King’s Touch, Sleigh excels at seeing and interpreting the world as it is, on its own merits. It’s a fine addition to his ever-longer body of work.
1 Subtracting those miscellany, The King’s Touch comprises 91 pages of poems.
2 I bring up the book being split into sections and the numbered/sectioned poems because sectioning work asks the readers to do some work: one must put together the component parts to make a whole. Sometimes, often really, this is easy! But sometimes it isn’t.
3 I was unaware of this prior to reading The King’s Touch.
4 I also reviewed “The Land Between Two Rivers” for MQR Online.