On Tom Sleigh’s “A Drone in the Promised Land”

from Tom SleighHouse of Fact, House of Ruin

                                sharing the doubts
of Thomas I felt the wall’s powdery
shell holes as if I too were fingering Christ’s
wounds—thumb-sized for AK
fist-sized for 20, two fists for 50.

In his sonnet, “A Drone in the Promised Land,” Sleigh recounts a memory of the Golan Heights, where he entered the ruins of a church damaged by war and artillery and touched the shell-pocked walls. Sleigh connects this moment to the biblical story of the “doubting Thomas” who must place his fingers in Christ’s wounds before he can believe. Do the walls of the ruined church imply the body of a resurrected Christ and thus the speaker’s faith? Or since this is a ruined church, not rebuilt (resurrected), does the poem question faith or the ability of religion to stem violence and human destruction? Thomas believed that he beheld Christ only when he could touch the wounds. The speaker’s recognition of war and its damage comes through physical touch. Yet what is more frightening, the damage left by war—whether to physical structures, faith, community, human lives—or the fact that the speaker so easily recognizes the ordnance and weapons? The speaker knows the war, has seen it, encountered it firsthand with his senses. There’s no doubt at all. Touching the wall confirms what the speaker knows. “A Drone in the Promised Land” draws on the archaic meanings of doubt as “fear or to be afraid.” Touching the wall enacts the fear. The ruins give shape to fear. No one can doubt war’s destruction, the ruins it will leave, the ways that war tests what nations will and will not do to other nations.

Tom SleighHouse of Fact, House of Ruin, Graywolf Press, 2018