By Tom Sleigh b. 1953 Tom Sleigh
Wiretaps and tapes, concealed
bugs and mikes,
                           intercepted letters
full of passionate declarations, contradictory
                           how attached he’d grown
to the subject’s documents, revising and rearranging
the influx of intelligence
with a sentiment, he acknowledged, almost
                           like love: he felt
the cool gray eyes of his superiors
trained on him, rebuking him
                           for swerving, for letting
himself go—such tender obsession
occasioned by the file!
                           Not quite the professional style
he or the Agency expected…
But such official loyalties
                           seemed mere protocol to this!—
what was wrong with him,
                           he wondered, that he construed
the documents to make the subject
seem a hero,
                           a bastard whose sole patrimony
was a pair of shoes and a rusted sword
left by an unknown father beneath a stone?
And yet his exploits in the tabloids,
the headlines screaming,
                           were these heroic
different in kind from the rumors,
                           of a rape, a murder?
—But to have met undisguised the devouring monster!
To have escaped the twisting tunnels of the maze…
On balance, for such a life,
                           the hero’s reputation wasn’t bad:
think of the opportunities for evil
                           a man of such qualities must have had!
How well he knew him—an essential innocence
that followed impulse, blind
to protocol, not noticeably more kind
                           than he was cruel.
But to stamp Case Closed and cease
                           gathering intelligence,
to give the hero up, almost, he admitted,
like a lover…:
                           such limits the hero
unknowingly transgressed!
And the Agency, cold-blooded where
                           limits were concerned (“mere protocol”?—
more like a second backbone!), committed
                           to keeping order, could not afford
such sentiments—the Chief of Security
felt an awful pang: that the work of intelligence
                           should lead to this…
He leaned back in his chair and sighed:
                           a forged genealogy certifying
that the hero’s father was a king; a mutual
assistance pact
                           to aid in taking back the usurped crown:
he could see them now, the wind
blowing lightly, the two of them sweating
as they climbed the cliff, discussing
                           the terms, exchanging information,
                           how would his own face look
staring down across the sea
                           as he gestured earnestly toward
some island, saying,
                           “According to our sources,
the tax revenues…”
                           And then, edging
the hero closer to the cliff, pointing
                           out the harbor, he’d push.

Tom Sleigh, "Intelligence" from Waking, published by The University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1990 by Tom Sleigh.  Reprinted by permission of the author.

Source: Waking (The University of Chicago Press, 1990)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Tom Sleigh b. 1953

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Activities, Jobs & Working, Relationships, Friends & Enemies, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment

 Tom  Sleigh


Tom Sleigh is the author of more than half a dozen volumes of poetry. Space Walk (2007) won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award and earned Sleigh considerable critical acclaim. Referring to this collection, poet Philip Levine noted, “Sleigh’s reviewers use words such as ‘adept,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘classical.’ Reading his new book, I find all those terms beside the point, even though not one is inaccurate. I am struck by the human dramas . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Activities, Jobs & Working, Relationships, Friends & Enemies, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.