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A Darker, Sweeter String by Lee Sharkey
© 2007, Off the Grid Press. 94 pgs. ISBN: 978-09778429-1-9

Imagination and Responsibility
A Review by Sonja James


In her wise and humane collection, Lee Sharkey artfully disguises a poetics of witness as a poetics of transparency. As a matter of fact, the poems are so crystalline, clear, and pure that each subject of scrutiny attains a comprehensive relevance which does not fail to touch the heart of the reader. Sharkey’s deft and deliberate fusion of the global with the personal transforms mere confession into a searching examination of universal human rights and the suffering which is always present throughout the world. The poems lend a voice to the voiceless and bear witness to our collective need for an understanding of the unspeakable. And yet, we are always aware that the speaker is an American woman forging these perceptions from a vantage of distance and safety.

The poems follow no distinct trajectory, and the almost haphazard placement of the various subjects augments the earnest endeavor of her project. The book opens with “Where the raven was,” a poem reflecting upon the archetypal world of myth as it succors and sustains our collective life: “The stream spills over every body floats”. Next the poem “Insomnia” explores sleeplessness as it impacts the collective psyche: “in the house of the past/which room can we sleep in”. The opening section continues with an audacious grace as Sharkey presents poems about death, the universal failure of world leaders, the education of a female child in a Third World country, and the oblivion that has swallowed forgotten immigrants. The section concludes with “Transitory,” a reflection upon technology and the species: “we were an industrious species/our lights strung the planet with hampers and nests”.

Sharkey’s continued fusion of the global with the personal is never more meticulous and hauntingly beautiful than in the long poem “Unscripted” in which the speaker is a mother who has lost her son not to war abroad but to natural causes at home: “it was not cluster bombs sniper’s fire shrapnel/it wore no M-16 did not click its heels”. The speaker continues her litany of the violence which could have caused her son’s death but did not until she finally confronts reality: “wind blew cold/the blade cut cleanly through the skull/it was my child”.

The third section also contains poems which illuminate suffering. “In vigil (2)”, for instance, examines the pain of a mother whose son is stationed in Iraq. However, the most moving of the poems is “Intifada,” which focuses on the plight of children in the Middle East:

When bulldozers
brazenly up-
root this story
deafened children
lurch into the
wall

And so the book progresses, creating dialogue when the actual voices of the suffering cannot be present. There are two more sections combining gritty social protest with Sharkey’s delicate yet omnivorous powers of observation. Sharkey assumes an almost mystical control of poems exploring the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians, unrest in Iran and the Balkans, and violence against women in Somalia. Although not the final poem of the book, “On the anniversary of the invasion” provides perhaps the best summation of this ambitious and courageous book. The speaker is in bed with her lover, and their mingled breath travels across oceans and continents to brush the faces of distant people as if the breath were wind:

on my side knees bent hand resting
lightly on my rib cage

lightly your knees touch my knees
your breath washes over my face

my breath washes over your face
our breath sifts out the window

and rides the thermals
over earth’s face scarred and shining

brushing distant faces
turned slightly to the touch of wind

Lee Sharkey startles us and uproots us from our complacent tendency to sympathize without acting. She lifts us and cradles us, reminding us that we, too, are distant observers whose breath can travel like a friendly wind. A Darker, Sweeter String is a book for the stalwart as well as the gentle. In its pages we are reminded that when humanity bleeds, mere ink and the passion to describe are never enough.


Sonja James is the author of two collections of poetry: Baiting the Hook (The Bunny and the Crocodile Press) and Children of the Moon (Argonne House Press).
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