Ask anyone who grew up in an area that’s a tourist attraction—there are few things more annoying than a person visits and then claims to understand it as well as or better than a native. This is exponentially worse when the visitor is from another country, culture, and/or religion. Expatriates writing about the places and people they’ve met have to be careful not to exoticize or romanticize their subjects. It’s also important to acknowledge one’s own position in relation to one’s subject (even if that subject is one’s own life). Shara Lessley does this very well in The Explosive Expert’s Wife, her second collection, published by the Wisconsin Poetry Series. Shane McCrae put it this way: “Lessley’s gift is to make experiences alien to most people familiar, without suppressing the alien qualities.”
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your copy of The Explosive Expert’s Wife, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Shara Lessley, you’ll need to to subscribe by February 20!
Much of Lessley’s book takes place in Amman, Jordan, and she describes it this way in the poem “First Days: August”:
My mother calls
again, worried by what she’s seen
on the nightly news: drought and more
drought, tensions rippling across
the Middle East. A month or two
elapses, more the same: salt
gathering in the damp black sleeves
of women harvesting fields of salt;
sand clinging to bits of sand
on sand-colored buildings, coating
roofs the color of chewed bread.
What I notice here, compared to poems that take place later in the collection, is how the language is firmly set in the familiar: salt, sand, even the choice of “tensions,” which seems to be US news organizations’ favorite word to describe violence. Notice how the language changes in a later poem, “They Ask Me To Send”:
My cousin wants a picture of me
on a camel, a hookah with apple tobacco. I bubble-
wrap a jar of pickled pomegranate seeds, ignore
his requests for Bedouin kohl; send instead a minaret,
dump trucks snuffing the call to prayer. I send the air
at Aaron’s tomb, a vial of wind whipped across
Here the speaker’s relatives are looking for what they consider exotic, and the speaker responds with her own forms of beautiful things. As the same poem shows later, the speaker doesn’t humor their Western assumptions about conditions in Amman:
This week (much like the last) my mother
demands a precise “timeline” detailing
our stateside return. Her neighbor wants proof
I’m not giving birth in a cave. I send them painted ostrich
eggs, billboards of the heir-apparent.
Perhaps what I appreciate most about this book is the way Lessley deals with the violence in the region, by which I mean she writes about it when it’s relevant but doesn’t treat it like it’s the only thing happening. And that’s important, because I think most people living in the US would object to a book written by a foreigner that focused only on the rampant gun violence in this nation, even though while I’m writing this I’m learning of another US school shooting. (That’s the thirteenth school shooting this year and we’re only halfway through February.) What I’m trying to say is that violence is a part of life but it’s not the whole of life, and Lessley sees that and offers it to us in the form of these poignant and arresting poems.
I hope you’ll join us in March as we read and discuss The Explosive Expert’s Wife first together, and then with Shara Lessley in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by February 20 to make sure you don’t miss out!