The Dreamhouse by Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh
University of Chicago Press ($12)

by Jeffrey Shotts

The Dreamhouse of the title of Tom Sleigh's fourth and latest collection of poems is a house divided. Between earth and spirit, pleasure and suffering, the dream and its reality, Sleigh's poems are restless assertions of ambivalence, spoken with voices almost assured as witnesses to an other, ethereal world on the shadow side of this one. Whether of sickness, grief, history, or myth, these ethereal worlds that Sleigh glances into brim with both unsettling imagination and the complex rendering of emotions previously unuttered.

But The Dreamhouse is most distinctly divided in its stylistic shifts, sometimes bravely divergent. If it is true, as Helen Vendler has suggested, that the breaking of style constitutes "an act of violence on the self," Sleigh has inflicted himself with an almost self-annihilating torment. Most of the poems in The Dreamhouse are approached through the first person, but through use of multiple personae and frequent stylistic shifts, Sleigh decisively obscures personal identity and artistic propensity. The collection remarkably weaves between subtly crafted formal lines and discursively drawn fragmented turns in the poems' structures and between evocations of Classical myth and images of urban facelessness among the poems' subjects.

The collection opens by invoking Horace in "Prayer," a poem pleading for the gratifications of this world:

Oh god of flesh, god of pleasure,

keep us in the dark
one moment more—

While this first poem suggests earthly pleasure is desired and achieved through keeping knowledge at arm's length, much of the rest of The Dreamhouse seems more concerned with glimpsing into ethereal worlds and uncovering spiritual dimensions beyond the flesh. Appearing just after "Prayer," the title poem describes the first postmortem moments as a surreal dissolve into light:

Even as he takes up residence, the dreamhouse
A void all glass and air: one table, one chair,
And sweeping wall to wall to wall sunlight everywhere.

The spare, sanitized, ethereal world of glass, air, and sunlight will, it seems, sweep away altogether the table and chair—the only objects of the minimalized tangible world.

Through the collection, the inevitable dissolving of earthly comforts continually disappoints the plea of the first poem, but although The Dreamhouse bereaves the loss of flesh, pleasure, and those that have passed on, it is not without a sense of wonder that we confront intersections with the unearthly. In the remarkable "Augusto Jandolo: On Excavating an Etruscan Tomb," the poem speaks with the archaeologist's voice to describe his discovery of a perfectly preserved body of an ancient warrior. But the wonder at this discovery is short-lived and suddenly replaced with the wonder at witnessing something like the warrior's soul at last set free. The ancient body succumbs to its sudden exposure to air and then "dissolved— / dissolved, as we looked on, / Into dust?":

But in the aura
Round our torches, a golden powder
Rose up in the glow and seemed to hover.

The Dreamhouse can seem at times uneven as Sleigh constantly writes in different voices and experiments with divergent forms, but it is finally an innovative and ambitious collection that extends the notable artistry of Sleigh's last two collections, The Chain and Waking. For his prodigious formal and imaginative talents, Sleigh's poetry is indispensable, and The Dreamhouse builds on his signature restless exploration:

Something in the mind can't rest, can it,
the mind is like that, my mind, yours, scavenging

after objects it gnaws, spits out, infantile
explorer day and night?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000