Shara Lessley quotes the third stanza from Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul has Bandaged moments” in the brilliantly chosen epigraph for The Explosive Expert’s Wife (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), her newest book of poems:
The Soul has moments of Escape - When bursting all the doors - She dances like a Bomb, abroad, And swings upon the Hours
Though their souls have few prominent moments of escape, the women in Lessley’s poems persevere—literally survive—the interminable violence they find in every corner of our disintegrating world. From fields and streets in Amman and Ibid, to strip malls in Washington D.C., the poet magnificently describes locations with their intrinsic dualities of hazard and beauty. We witness this world most notably through the eyes of an ex-pat—a soldier’s wife. But Lessley’s collection also communicates the engaging thoughts and voices from an ensemble of characters that includes an accused terrorist’s wife and the Middle East’s first all-women’s demining team (clearing “dragon’s teeth” in the fields of Jordan along the Syrian border).
Lessley provides no easy solutions to the complications in these fraught lives. Anxiety builds and releases throughout these poems like rapid heartbeats, and fear ticks like a countdown in The Explosive Expert’s Wife. This tension—whether dealt out by marital complexity, unending war in the foreground and background, carnage and death, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood—is its own character in the book.
In the poem “Border,” a wife and her soldier husband travel along an unpaved route “four kilometers from Umm Qais” above the Sea of Galilee. They pass by a family “sprawled beneath a terebinth,” when:
… A boy scampers up the tree. His brother fools with a two-way radio. Along another road if I saw that, you say, I'd be all nerves. Across some border, already men are counting bodies …
Later in the poem, the wife’s unease blossoms into sleepless nights:
… Now, the gravelly click of the jeep's wheels rambling down the road. Eight months we've lived in the Middle East, have yet to reach the night I dream the embassy bombing at Kabul: half-buried, you hold what's left-some fabric scrap, a woman's burning sandal.
In “The Accused Terrorist’s Wife,” because of foreclosure, a wife has no choice but to move her children and belongings to her father-in-law’s home:
behind the well, she beats a bedroom rug till none can tell it's her cries that fill the streets.
What is most unsettling—and most potent—about The Explosive Expert’s Wife, is that while Lessley’s speakers and characters find themselves stuck in physical and emotional realities of extraordinary adversity and danger, in some ways they are also stuck in the process of being desensitized and numbed to their circumstances.
… Shepherds herd their sheep in restricted fields, their daughters more afraid of sniffing dogs than the cross-shaped pressure plates lying in wait …
The distressing truth that landmines are as common as strange dogs to these families is a horrifying reality. But in this poem (and many more like it), Lessley compels her readers to explore their own internal terrain. At what point does one become numb to the outrageous, daily violences and anxieties she or he faces in-person and across screens of every size? These poems’ questions demand answers.
In “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife,” a list poem, the speaker gives scraps of cultural information and guidance to a soldier’s wife about life in Amman. She finally says, “By September or October you’ll learn to / tune out the call to prayer.”
The dizzyingly effective “Vertigo: Boston / The Middle East,” which finds both speaker and reader losing balance between a reading in Boston, the Boston Marathon bombing, and a parent’s fear of losing a child, ends with a line that seems to contain every sentiment in the book in one small space:
… because to cry's a sign, to cry is proof there's life
The situations and perspectives within this collection’s poems are illuminating, haunting, and absolutely bolstered by Lessley’s sense of song. The intentional use of alliteration, rhyme, and repetition fill these poems with music when it is least expected and needed most. In poem after poem, Lessley describes a precarious world with lines such as this one from “In Jordan’s Northernmost Province”:
hovering above a mapwork of metalwork, brushing dust from the cluster bombs like ash from flatbread.
In “Arabian Night,” Lessley makes use of internal rhyme when she writes, “All hint of song is / gone.” The reader must understand the song can never fail as long as there is someone there to transmit it. In The Explosive Expert’s Wife, Shara Lessley’s poetry tunes our eyes and ears to recognize that each of us not only holds within ourselves the capacity to inflict terror upon one another, but the capability to endure it as well. This work exhorts us to become numb to neither.