Lee Sharkey begins Walking Backwards (Tupelo, 2016) with a series of “Cautionaries,” an eight-poem sequence that signals her reader to beware. The images are dangerous, capable of wounding, yet compelling in their entreaty, the way they ask something of the one who peers inside to face: an old woman wrenched from her house, yet abiding before the door; an old man not so surprised at the smell of fire; a mother who unearths the portion of her son’s face that had not been ruined / for the light to shine on; the surrogate of Rosa Luxemburg commandeering a print shop at night, her fingers ink-stained; and the hands that receive scraps at the back door from the kitchen girl and a little bit in love, / would do errands for her—tie her laces, / shelter the flame for her cigarette—/while her face drifted off to the war.
On these pages we face the faces that have drifted off to the war: a war here unnamed and thus unlimited, yet filled with references to Jewish writers who faced Hitler and Stalin and thus genocide and the night of murdered poets. It is this company Sharkey invites us to keep with caution and moral plea. She obliges her readers as she does herself to become, in Susan Gubar’s words, the “proxy witness” for those whose testimony sounds from the past and now draws our face to turn war-ward with them.
As poetry, Sharkey’s writings do not easily reduce to categories beyond their own spare, fine expression. Yet, we do not betray them if we speak of them as poems which testify through a clear and intentional Jewish intertextuality. By intertextuality, I do not mean here to refer to the erudition of allusion and its rhetorical wink and still less to the assaulting, postmodern strategies of subversion that can come into play when a poet takes on strong precursors. Rather, Sharkey’s intertextuality emerges through a warmer, more subtle and intimate conversation with Jewish voices of the holocaust generation and its aftermath—with writers such as Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, Abraham Sutzkever, and Peretz Markish. Hers is an exercise in poetic midrash, writing through, with, and alongside other texts to which she would give honor and life beyond silence—the possibility of re-sounding in her own writing. It is a deeply ethical intertextuality.
Sharkey engages not only these voices, but the voices they knew. We hear textual echoes, as her poems allow other texts to re-sound, but then be placed in conversation as if to invite them to say more or respond further. “First Song” is a gem in this regard. Under the banner “Gleaners,” the poem gently hints at the biblical story of Ruth and then lets the hints do their work: bereavement, hunger, mother, cleaving (that wonderful auto-antonym that ties Ruth to Genesis 2:24), the chesed of steadfastness. Sharkey sounds the tones of the story, but with a subtlety that softly bids us enter to consider the power of the egg rolling (returning in “Something We Might Give”), the apronful of barleycorn. The poem not only invokes the specificity of the story (without ever mentioning it), but pushes it to a near- mythic level where human bonds, fertility, and the meeting of hunger are at stake. Even more, though, in the larger context of the collection, these same tones resonate in stories from the later time. That plight of bereavement, of hunger, the gesture of cleaving between mothers and daughters: Celan and Sachs, Sutzkever all would have heard in this a contemporary cry akin to the tacit pleas of the old woman and the kitchen girl of “Cautionaries.” As Avivah Zornberg suggests, Ruth and Naomi are dead women walking. In Sharkey’s tender poem, we draw near to their footsteps, gleaning not only the grain but the story that defies its own threat of death.
Walking Backwards culminates with several poems marked as poems in conversation: “Old World” (with Peretz Markish), “Lyric” (with Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan), and “Something We Might Give” (with Abraham Sutzkever). Here, Sharkey quotes these writers, but in a way as to comment upon them and weave them into larger frames of meaning, the impulse of midrash. The quotations themselves, in their spareness and selection, reflect Sharkey’s own eye and ear and her words join them seamlessly, without intrusion. She keeps the quotations elegantly simple and as fragments which give these figures a spectral presence, as if they were not fully there (we hear only bits and pieces) but undeniably present in the poet’s recall. A complexity emerges in the quotation of correspondence between Celan and Sachs: My dear Paul, such joy your handwriting brought me / My dear, my good Nelly, I thank you from the heart. A miniature found poem, it brings us up short to glimpse the expressions of joy, of dear, and good in these persons whom we so automatically associate with the confrontation of horror. Sharkey keeps them human (to no little relief), but such a portrayal of their humanity ultimately underscores the courage of their poetry. These were not persons who neither knew nor welcomed ordinary signs of life (we see Celan playfully carrying his son goat-back), but because they did, the horror they knew seems all the greater, as must be the courage to express it without flinching. At least in moments, they overcame the solitude, sycamore bark between . . . thumb and finger, marking the dark accomplishment which is not only that, but the struggle to think of something good. Sharkey’s own voice confesses: I’m sorry to have used my mouth so carelessly—a fine line which is not itself careless, but expresses the humility to which her poems bring us in the presence of such company, in the presence of their poetry, their language and the newborn silence.
Walking Backwards—the title is compelling, bringing to mind Walter Benjamin’s theses and his invocation of Klee’s Angelus Novus to the effect that, in time, we know only where we have been. Thus, from a future we walk back to our past. But Sharkey’s “In the Capital of a Small Republic” gives it a more Mosaic nuance. That we walk backwards is not only a past-ward turn or teshuvah, but the way we must orient ourselves wherever we go. That is, wherever we go we encounter a presence—of holiness or of the terror—which we must face, as it were, backwards, not looking directly at what is so other. There is protection in this, but also reverence and a reckoning of something which claims us so singularly: what is so other and yet so our own.