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Lee Sharkey’s Walk into the Jewish Depths

Anna Wrobel
February 16, 2017

by Anna Wrobel

Discussed in this essay: Walking Backwards, poetry by Lee Sharkey, Tupelo Press, 2016, 89 pages.

“I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise I am planting for my
children.” --Talmud

LEE SHARKEY has been a midwife of sorts, drawing profoundly compelling poetry from disadvantaged Maine women. She listens to and esteems the poor and the troubled. Her travels to Eastern Europe, which inspired Walking Backwards, arose from the same unselfishly observant eye and keen heart. There is a Primo Levi-like honesty here, a capacity, beyond romanticization, for recognizing psycho-cultural forces that create folktales and archetypes, bridge present to past. The eternal question: Can we learn from the past? How can we know those who were once as alive as we — we who will one day become tales and images? How can we, as ancestors, bridge to our children’s children? And they to us? Lee’s poetry calls to those who share the healing mission of planting for the children.

If I were to research all the footnotes, references, allusions, and tales embedded in her texts and subtexts (from Walter Benjamin to Beckett to the Torah) , a vast range of knowledge would open. Multiple readings of her work reveal layers of journey; Sharkey is at once a teacher and a poet of near-sublime illumination, her every page a candle. Literal meanings are not always apparent, but her poems are always evocative, stirring in the reader direct feelings, inchoate yearnings, and unflinching observations.

The cover art of Walking Backwards depicts post-pogrom, deported Jews. They walk forward, not knowing where to. Sharkey walks backwards, one foot behind the other, until she joins them in their shared exile and wandering. She walk backwards through the Holocaust, backwards to Vilnius, backwards before urban migration, backwards to pogroms and exiles, backwards to medieval wanderings to Jerusalem, backwards to crossings of the Ivrit (the Hebrews) into ancient and modern Israel. Along the continuum, she stops at a military checkpoint in the West Bank, where an elder Arab man and a young Israeli soldier both suffer an infernal stasis. She identifies with Palestinian women who wait and hope. Sharkey’s sad disappointment departs from knee-jerk Israel-bashing, as it is born of love and better hopes. Can our own fates be altered or undone?

The poem “In the Capital of a Small Republic” (Vilnius, Lithuania) reveals how very carefully one must tread when walking backwards.

Lowering my right foot cautiously
Lowering my left foot cautiously . . .
The stones are what knowledge I have to go on
Down the seven stinking streets of this plague

The poet bravely engages in an impossible task: reversing time into the past, seeking out
moments that might have been undone. Walking Backwards is about communion, reunion,
dialogue -- a hasidic tale repairing the torn fabric of the universe, an attempt at restoration of
human covenants, an Einsteinian walk along the space-time continuum of history. It is the rare
poet who so deftly distills the historical record into poetic forms.

MYSTERIES OF HISTORY are hidden between her lines. An otherworldliness pervades them as Sharkey’s poems interact with ghosts and spirits, some of them European Jewish poets she has long traveled with -- Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, Abraham Sutzkever (survivors of Hitler’s Final Solution), and Markish Perets (victim of Stalinist show trials and the Night of the Murdered Poets). She has sought out these colleagues, whose lives and work radiate loss, sorrow and the great longing for life in full bloom, in surreal dialogues -- one more layer to excavate. By digging, the reader is moved, shifted, challenged, befriended. From the poem “Ground Truthing,” we may discern Lee’s path, and perhaps a message:

I was bent on knowledge
of the flowering branch the wind that sweeps the sea in its path
It has come to this
rod in hand of one who speaks with scarred mouth
storm on the mountain an arduous god
but this gift each morning
to every one his portion
that opens the matrix the fruit thereof

The book opens with “Cautionaries,” a series of eight poems that advises readers that what follows is not for the faint of heart, that once-living people are “different from paper,” that sorrow, betrayal, shame, severed bonds, and death are all here, to be faced. Sharkey shows us, too, where our work as activist poets may take us. In poem #6, she says:

I slipped into the skirts of Rosa Luxemburg . . .
Every night we commandeered a print shop;
presses clattered out the great new day.
Even now,
a century later: ink stain on my fingers.
Poem #8 cautions about lost histories, lost names and silence, the fullness of empty places and faces. The presence of absence is overwhelming:

My friend says she will blow a hole in the silence.
I tell her to look in the mirror
to get the feel of absence.

But absence is not all that’s found. Lee Sharkey is planting for the children, all of our children. Her book is as much a manual for living as it is a testament to those whose deaths were too often unnatural. In the final poem, “Something We Might Give,” in conversation with the Vilna poet, Sutzkever, and with a note from Celan, we are assured that total erasure is impossible, that “A wildflower returns to bloom in the ghetto,” that “Something nests in the chimney,” that “We empty and fill,” “...borrow books from the unliving,” “For there remained amid the losses this one thing: language.” Lee’s last lines of the final poem invite us to begin, always to begin.

Among the slaughtered sounds a newborn silence
Genesis words to light the long slumber

Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel, a contributing writer to our magazine, is a recently retired history teacher and the author of Marengo Street: Selected Poems (2012, Moon Pie Press).