Q&A: Tom Sleigh
Could you tell us a little about the background or context of this poem?
I’ve always been unsettled by Barbie and her male spin-off, Ken. I remember being in Provincetown, Massachusetts, something like ten years ago, and walking down Commercial Street. In the front yard of a guesthouse was an entire collection of Barbie dolls sitting around a fountain, all of them smiling that slightly demented, frozen smile. Some were in fancy dress, others were in beach wear. It was funny—and creepy—and whenever I walked by their little non- stop party, I was charmed, amused, and a little repulsed.
Then in 2007 I was in Syria and Lebanon doing an article for Virginia Quarterly Review on how the 2006 Lebanese-Israeli War had affected Palestinian refugees in both countries. While I was there, a mini-civil war broke out in Lebanon: car bombs were going off in different Beirut neighborhoods, civilians were shot, a Palestinian ref- ugee camp in Tripoli was completely destroyed in a battle between the Lebanese Army and an Islamic militia, Fatah al-Islam. But rather than rehash a lot of details, I’ll summarize by saying that toward the end of my trip, I went to the south of Lebanon to the town of Qana. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s said to be the same Qana where Jesus worked his first miracle by turning water into wine. Of course, there’s also another Qana across the border in Israel, but I’ll leave it to the scholars to fight out which one is Jesus’s.
My driver took me there because he’d been a member of a rescue squad during the 2006 war, and he and his ambulance crew had been among the first responders to the bombing of present day Qana in which an extended civilian family, huddled together in an underground garage of an apartment building, had been killed by an American-made Israeli Defense Forces bomb. As we drove to the south, skirting blown up bridges and bombed-out roads, he told me what he’d witnessed: the smoke from the Israeli bombs was so thick that it was hard to see; cell phones were ringing in the dead people’s pockets—or the body parts’ pockets—and so after having answered a few of these calls, with the inevitable consequences of the conversations, after a while he just let them ring.
He also recalled trying to dig out a little girl from a mound of rubble where she was buried up to her chin, digging at the debris with his bare hands until he’d gotten her uncovered as far as her armpits. But when he took her under the armpits to lift her free, her whole torso came away: she’d been blown in half. Just at the moment he told me this, at the very spot where it had happened, we saw a naked doll with its head blown off. The irony was repulsively heavy-handed, but charged in a way that made both of us a little spooked by the coincidence. Of course I didn’t think of Barbie at that moment, but I’m certain she’d been lurking in my consciousness somewhere. And of course it was impossible to ignore the parallel between the dead girl and the decapitated doll.
So here was this doll: a sign of the war that I didn’t know exactly how to read, except in the way that a poem tries to read such things.
So much for the general background.
For more specific contexts, the mention of the barracks in the first section refers to a command post where we had to stop to get clearance to go farther south. I remember walking past shelves of supplies and hearing the voices of Lebanese soldiers joking around while I went to the john. “Zubrak,” which I needn’t translate, is just another example of the amazingly rich lexicon of Arabic profanities.
As to PSYOP, I first heard the term in some movie or other. But it became more a reality when I learned that the IDF sometimes drops leaflets warning civilians to vacate towns that are about to be bombed. Also, the aura of secrecy that surrounds the terms “Black Op” and “White Op” (terms that a State Department official once explained to me after a mutual acquaintance of ours had suggested that he—the official—was carrying on a clandestine spying operation in a Somali refugee camp in Kenya, where again I was doing a story for Virginia Quarterly Review), like black magic and white magic, maybe had something to do with Barbie as a kind of sexual fetish—at least if you’re an eight-year-old boy who grew up in tiny towns in Texas and Utah.
No, not directly: I hadn’t read his poem, though it’s interesting how both of our poems take up elements of his concern with media manipulation for political ends. I like the knowing air of disillusion in his poem. One thing you discover when you begin researching these kinds of “incidents” is that the internet is one of the circles of hell, and that hell is the complete erosion of concepts like “objectivity” or “facts.” But in my poem, I’m not all that concerned with what you might call journalistic standards of truth. The doll is more an emblem of survival, a provocation, a stand-in for some kind of atrocity—but it’s also just a piece of molded plastic, more indestructible trash like the plastic bags in the third section.
Freud would probably call section two “uncanny,” with its focus on the decapitated doll and its riveting eye. Would you agree?
Absolutely. I reread Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny,” as well as the essay he takes off from by Ernst Jentsch, and I was struck by how both of them link the ordinary and the domestic with what the Beowulf poet would call “the wyrd”—an unanchored sense of dread and foreboding that makes, as Freud points out, what we call heimlich al- most synonymous with unheimlich. The homely and the un-homely become a kind of Möbius strip: a headless doll in a field of rubble turning to a dead girl turning to Barbie and her pals grinning away under a guesthouse’s carefully focused porch lights.
Tom Sleigh is the author of more than nine volumes of poetry, including The Chain (1996), Far Side of the Earth (2003), Space Walk (2007), and Station Zed (2015). Space Walk 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,’...