by Lee Sharkey
Off the Grid Press 2008
Reviewed by John Deming
Let’s Stay. Already Leaving.
In his essay “Words of a Native Son,” James Baldwin explains that he once developed a fictional character by looking for and finding her in real people. This led to a greater revelation:
“I began to see that there would be very small
things that she would do and very peculiar
things that she would say to reveal her torment.
I began to see that this is what we all do, all
of the time, all of us, including you and me. That
whatever is really driving us is what can never, never,
never be hidden and is there to see if one wants
to see it.”
If the potential for this kind of understanding, even sympathy, is everywhere, it’s tempting to lapse into misunderstanding as to how/why so many earthly people possess such violent, imperious, even murderous impulses. “The trouble is, of course,” Baldwin continues, “that most of us are afraid of that level of reality.” And naturally, when fearful individuals seek the comfort of like-company, benevolence can easily go belly-up.
Much of Lee Sharkey’s new book reminds us of the extent to which the notion of “one vs. many” marks the natural flux of things. For example, the inevitable death of a beloved individual vs. the inevitable annihilation of the human race en masse. But Sharkey’s focused obsession on inevitability is never completely absent of hope. Hope emerges from an unfathomable blend of urgency and patience, which is embodied by the careful fragmentation of her poems:
This sack of skin
his eyes ever a window
in sleep transparent lids
there is no time
“Time” is an important word in Sharkey. In these lines from “Unscripted,” our narrator watches a sleeping loved one. Literally, she watches him age. Sooner or later, this person will die. An overwhelming urgency clamors in, interrupted by the lateral stillness of the room (“the present is true to itself,” she writes later). It’s the potential of one passing instant against the whole abstract mass of time, and finally, the implication that moments must be seized in a way that suggests life, however transient, carries some form of value.
Sharkey’s anti-war bent is a logical component of this obsession. The urgency of action against time is central to anti-war movements; passion emerges from the sensation that an unjust war must be stopped now, not five minutes from now. If it ends now, a life might be spared. However inconsequential or sacrificial one life may be amid a massive military struggle, each casualty holds a profoundly singular identity, history, system of opinions and ideas, system of veins, organs and impulses. This individually is addressed when, our narrator, while demonstrating against the War in Iraq, is accosted by a brokenhearted Mom:
I have two children in the war and let me tell you: They are the heroes, you don’t deserve to walk this earth
A mouth pursed over in pain
I’ll take the opportunity to tell you about my family. My son’s no
“stupid soldier”—got a master’s degree. He went to Iraq to bring
This mother then backs away from the nobility of the cause, and we see the real struggle: “Do any of you know what it’s like to be up all night, every minute thinking…” Sharkey artfully, and from great distance, presents the contradiction that mother and protester want the same thing: for these children to be home. For mothers to be able to sleep at night. For the impossibly singular socio-political war monster to find itself more intuitively aligned with the tremendous sadness of every living person, particularly those with an incidental stake in the abstract business of humans killing other humans. Sometimes war is necessary or justified; many times it isn’t. Sharkey isn’t shy about taking sides: “I see what it would cost to see your country has betrayed you”.
Even though life can be cognized as valuable, Baldwin suggests, people are willing to destroy each other. Does this develop from a sense of anger at an irrespressible sense emptiness and meaninglessness? Is killing, as Don DeLillo’s unflappable hero in White Noise suggests, a way of storing up credits against one’s own death? Who can tell. There are grown children everywhere. They are confused. They emote. They deceive. They want. They claim territory. They build walls. They play war. They can’t conquer the abstract, but can perhaps conquer the concrete:
They build a wall around it. They call it their familiar. It tells them, you have to choose between your mother and your father
The kids throw stones. Now. Organize your anger and set out over the disfigured landscape
The stakes are high, because the very value of life comes into question. These boys, anger organized efficiently, are set to destroy the very obscurity of life. This is of course opposite the idea that the human ability to organize—to cognize at all—might be used to recognize suffering and develop a system of ethics. But brutality is fact in this asteroid-smash of a universe, and human beings can’t be expected to be an exception; Sharkey understands this. Without horror, we can’t frame virtue anyway; without death, we can’t frame life: “How beautiful is the gift of mourning.” All over the natural world, there is a thin line dividing pleasure and pain: “Desire so intense that she eats him / mandibles cracking his skull.” These things rely on each other.
The poet, of course, makes nothing explicit; with her space, her fragmentation and her open endings, she is already leaving us. So are the people she loves. She is sad. And thankfully, her fragmentation, her open-ended semi-prose stanzas and her effortless sense of distance offer a focused and alluring read. The poems are individually titled, but the book reads more like a series, a self-contained long poem, a sustained inspiration. “Unscripted,” an incredibly strong long poem in its own right, concludes with a carefully imagined flower in bloom:
red lines the throat
at the base of the skull
a tangled flow
There is brutality in these lines; when “red lines the throat,” we’re helpless to avoid considering a slashed throat, even a beheading. But at the base of an intact skull, blood flows in and out of the brain, allowing for conscious reason; flower is almost “flow”-er, or something that flows. The flow of blood and cells in one cognizant person is fused with the flow of time. Human cognition is tangled, but perpetually in bloom.
When Sharkey’s on, she disappears like vapor; in a few select cases, she disappears into recognizable poetics. For example, the first passage I quoted (in which the poet views a slumbering loved one) is followed by this line: “breathe in breathe out.” The use of breathing as a way to apportion time is wonderful, but the execution-by-caesura is predictable. Likewise for the Poetic diction in lines like: “Not a sound was coming from my mouth.” Nevertheless A Darker, Sweeter String is a book that is best read in repetition, cover to cover, and should be considered a focused, dramatic length of lyric; certain abstractions might fall short depending on your inclinations, but the occasions are rare.
Life, Whitman still teaches us, insists on itself. In “Song of Myself,” we see this in what the bard terms a “jetblack sunrise”—an incident where “four hundred and twelve” young prisoners of war are “brought out in squads and massacred.” They don’t all go quietly: “A youth not seventeen years old seized his assassin till two more came to release him, / The three were all torn, and covered with the boy’s blood.” Life insists on itself, and this becomes evident not only in the shaggy grasses that punch through each spring, but in the will of a near-butchered seventeen-year-old. The fact of brutality lends itself to fact of—the urgency of—survival. Whether skulls are cracked on the battlefield or in the mandibles of an insect-lover, Sharkey sees the war, the urgency, in nature:
lilies have risen
from mud for the surface
where the new leaves lie
So whether or not we learn to stop destroying ourselves is almost beside the point (Sharkey, in appropriate contradiction: “There is no hope to offer, and we offer none”). If we have the capacity, as Baldwin suggests, to look at people and see “what drives them,” we’d certainly witness blind hatred at some point or other. Yet to use cognition in order to insist on life is an end in and of itself–to perpetuate life, to survive because it is our business to survive. If ethics are an abstraction, they are our abstraction.
War happens on a massive scale, and pieces of writing about war tend to be equally massive. What you have in this book is, in the end, deeply personal–a soft reminder you’re only seconds away from decades of nostalgia, from telling yourself it’s a shame, I just got here and I’m already on the way out. Such sensations perhaps make the greatest case that life should never be considered expendable (and on a more immediate level, that lives should only be sacrificed for noble causes). Sharkey reminds us that the desire of the many who want to stay–and want others to stay–in spite of everything is perhaps our greatest contradiction, and that which makes us most valuable.