Young poets, hotheads newly converted and ablaze with ideas, crane their necks and clear their throats, eager for their song to be heard above all, while others further advanced polish their craft and are keen to cultivate an identity. They each have an insistent urge to tell of a discovery, a mystery, a moment of understanding, and are impatient; but with age comes experience, and with it, perhaps, a more confident approach to sharing such things.
Lee Sharkey accumulated a good deal of experience during her life as wife and mother, teacher, anti-war campaigner and poet with several well received collections to her name. Her last, I Will Not Name It Except To Say, was completed mere months before she died at the age of seventy-five in the autumn of 2020, and is in itself a wonderful legacy, awash with imagination and inventiveness. She writes with a colour box at hand, along with all the tools of her trade acquired over years, and uses them wisely, unobtrusively. And you walk away from a poem of hers with something that sticks: be it a striking image or an illuminating phrase, something will come to mind that either prods or confirms.
The poem “Letter To Al,” about her second husband’s dementia, illustrates the point. The man is lost to her, and only when he plays the cello does the connection, the old passion return. “a penny for your thoughts,” she says, “but you do not speak them.” The grief is dreadful, but is softened by memory, and she recalls their time in Russia, describing the cold, the difficulty of learning the language, the high fur hats and boots made of caribou. What’s all too apparent in this distressing tale of “quiet, old lovers who have no need to speak” is her devotion allied to a sense of utter helplessness, which prompts the plaintive line: “What can I do? Just stay with me.” It is a sombre but wise poem, digging deep to comprehend and fairly portray her contact with “Death’s imbecile cousin.” The final two lines summing up her despairing position perfectly:
You fill your pillbox, watch Space X rockets land on water.
A hand held, a kiss soft on the lips—there is no future to speak of.
It’s a poem which tackles an emotive subject with kindness and good grace, and has deservedly garnered praise from all quarters, winning the prestigious Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize.
Western culture and Jewish heritage walk hand-in-hand within these pages, with Franz Marc, Otto Dix, and George Grosz just a few of several European painters cited. Most impressive though is a series of twelve shortish prose poems inspired by, and descriptive of the work of the conceptual artist, and Holocaust Survivor, Samuel Bak. These are strange, hypnotic pieces, almost nihilistic in their whisperings of destruction and the degradations of war. Some are dreamlike, some are almost prosaically too real. “She has nothing to cover herself but the peel of an apple and an unruly square of cloth that rears like a sail every time the wind or a pistol shot whistles past her,” begins “Desultory Goddess.” Her historical awareness and the interpretation of another’s experiences combine to produce a picture of suffering where the only beauty is that born of forgetting. Tellingly, there are a great many biblical references within these poems but also, and more pointedly perhaps with the camps in mind, there are just as many to food: pears, newly ripened apples, a slice of bread, a sack of smuggled potatoes … With her talk of “a hole in a wall the shape of the absence of God” it is pretty strong stuff.
I read the title poem as a sort of coda to these events, with “I Will Not Name It Except To Say” followed by the line: “that this happened, is happening,” and concluding “Our children shall feast on the property of heaven” You would hope so.
Turn over any page in this book and you’ll find something that stops you in your tracks, draws you in and asks questions of you. There are no duds, no trite sentiments or easy assumptions, just a disarming honesty in poems that can be painterly almost in their detail and texture. They are serious, yes, but that’s not to say they are ever drearily earnest or preachy, far from it; they are endlessly fascinating in their originality and artistry; in their incongruous imagery whose meaning can gradually dawn on you and unsettle you or, with a deft stroke, bring you up suddenly. The subtle and nuanced is found alongside a stark immediacy.
The poems are steeped in history and identity. She considers the fate of a people forever seen as outsiders, and notes: “Today as every day I return to exile, the past flooding forward, the future receding.” The subject is approached in a considered way which is fresh and fully alive; compassionate and angry; knowing, yet avoiding the lazy acceptance of cynicism. And she can write with what comes across as a sort of detached sadness, which is not an acceptance, but merely the recognition of things.
Tyranny and dictatorship are dealt with in “Winter Tulips,” which playfully exposes the absurdities of absolute power, and also perhaps warns us to be ever vigilant in defending our freedoms against a rigid orthodoxy of both the right and the left. It ends:
When Reza Pahlavi banned these words
from poetry: winter forest tulip rose
the poet wrote
In _____ , in deep _____, I searched
for the _____ that would not bloom till spring.
Imagine, a grown man afraid of a flower!
Elsewhere, you will come across floating table cloths; the ritual of Tashlich, whereby sins are cast away (“I kneaded a loaf of my failings and fed it to the fish”); the creation and animation of Golem, a clay giant protecting the Jews of Prague, and this exquisite couplet taken from the poem “Thieves,” which considers the act of recording what happened to her people during the war:
Rage cedes to intimacy, manuscripts laid to rest with feathers in sacks and pillowcases.
Shoots under snow. A poem surfaces, painting the ceiling between heaven and earth.
Such lines, handling difficult material with tenderness and ingenuity, are spread generously throughout these pages like little revelations.
I began this review comparing the zeal and the restlessness of youth to the more reasoned, the quieter perspective of the older, experienced poet. But each is equally important, of course, and equally relevant. The younger poet can have insight, an informed intelligence, just as age is no bar to a fierce originality and new ideas. And in this disquieting but oddly optimistic collection, Lee Sharkey displays all these attributes, presenting us with a series of skillfully constructed poems whose images and reflections will stay with me for quite some time. Her passing means the loss of a rare talent whose work will surely endure.
I Will Not Name It Except to Say, by Lee Sharkey. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, May 2021. 90 pages. $18.95, paper.
Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford in the UK. His poetry and reviews have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in both the UK and America. He is Poetry Editor with Between These Shores Books.