Violence and Tenderness: The Explosive Expert’s Wife by Shara Lessley

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Shara Lessley’s second poetry collection, The Explosive Expert’s Wife, opens with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson:

The Soul has moments of Escape –
When bursting all the doors –
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the Hours

If Dickinson’s bomb provides the metaphoric blast for her imagined soul, the explosions in Lessley’s poetry occur in daily lives and take the form of actual bombs. The opening poem, “In Jordan’s Northernmost Province,” is “for the Middle East’s first all-female demining team.” Against the certainty of place and subject in the poem’s title and dedication, the poem opens and closes on ambiguous gestures of women’s bodies. The introductory line, “Women go down on their knees,” invites a recognition of women’s gestures as sexualized—even the simple gesture of kneeling, yet the following description of the women deminers, “hovering above a mapwork of metalwork, brushing / dust from cluster bombs like ash from flatbread,” also provides an image of nourishment through a simile comparing demining and bread-making. This unsettling of traditional gender roles and the richness of Lessley’s sonics sweep her reader into fields “where men once braided their hair,” and where, “a wife trades her niqab for goggles / and armor.”

Beginning with the initial poem, the women in this book (specifically in the roles of mothers and wives) exist in a weaponized landscape—the earth itself contains “delicate metal-filled bomblets,” and “dragon’s teeth, toylike / mines disguising themselves as butterflies / and yams.” Harm is everywhere, threatening the poems’ subjects with violent changes in their circumstances. Harm is also an inheritance, recounted in poems such as “The Marine Ball,” “The Bath Massacre, 1927,” and “Vertigo: Boston / The Middle East.” This preoccupation with harm makes the speaker in the first poem question the portent-filled ordinary: “[T]he ragged / finch perched on the fencepost, / does it prophesy something”—and rightly so, for in The Explosive Expert’s Wife, a finch is never just a finch and a bomb never simply physical or metaphoric. The book’s multivalent quality, not only in its fluid movements between the geographies of Jordan and the United States, but in the careful parsing of image and object required of Lessley’s reader, is part of its beckoning pleasure. For example, the closing lines of “In Jordan’s Northernmost Province” describe the day’s unknown situation for a deminer:

______________________Who knows what
the ordinary arbor holds. Hundreds of
underground cages ready to unloose the clay-
more birds in air, their blackened gullets canting
for the boy’s mother, now downed
among the silent grasses, as if unclasping a barb
from her stocking, or bending to sweep back
the wild herbs clutched at her jilbab’s hem.

The poem closes in ambiguity—the verb “downed” suggesting, but not confirming, that the deminer does more than stoop to the earth in her work, as the women in the poem’s opening lines suggestively “go down on their knees.” The effect is one of not knowing whether the deminers are safe. The intense, narrative pressure of the hundreds of claymore birds “canting” for the deminer’s life dramatizes what is some of the most quietly dangerous work. Yet so ordinary, the poem argues, naming other everyday actions that could account for the movement of “downing”: “unclasping a barb / from her stockings,” and “bending to sweep back / the wild herbs.” This simultaneous attention to the minor gesture and to lyric as embedded in the ordinary reveals to Lessley’s reader a lack of distance between the oppositions of ordinary and strange, metaphoric and real, others and ourselves.

An abiding, thematic duality throughout The Explosive Expert’s Wife is that of knowing / not knowing, particularized through the gaze of an American expat living in the city of Amman, Jordan. In “The Ugly American,” the (seemingly omniscient) narrator describes a group of boys beating a jennet (a female donkey) “out of boredom, because she was in heat.” Then the narrator gives another reason why the boys beat the animal:

Because revolution had stalled the usual

parade of buses and there were no tourists to ferry
up 800 rock-cut steps to The Monastery,

they pinned her against a cliff and beat her.

The antecedent noun to the partial couplets quoted above is “the jennet,” but in referencing the animal by feminine pronouns, the rough treatments extends from its particular noun to a broader depiction of gendered violence. The next line describes a witness to the beating: “Only a woman, very pregnant, saw.” The boys’ senseless violence provokes this woman to pick up her own rock, “though / she was half a field away.” Next, the woman “heard herself / curse, think every stupid soulless thing / she’d heard about the filth borne of this region.” The attention of this poem, the whole of it but especially here, inside the speaker’s mind, is difficult and discomforted—its title tells us so, in naming the poem “The Ugly American” rather “The American Wife” or “The Expat Wife,” or a title that would fit with the numerous mothers and wives appearing in titles throughout the collection. “The Ugly American” looks into an emotional explosion taking place in the pregnant woman watching the beating of the jennet. When a man scolds and chases off the boys, the third-person narrator observes:

As they joked and kicked up sand, it was then she felt

deep within the son she had forgotten. Please
understand this isn’t metaphor: when

I dropped the rock, I had blood on my hand.

Lessley’s reader perhaps remembers Dickinson’s line from the epigraph, where the soul, “dances like a Bomb, abroad.” This book covers many subjects and diverse geographical locations, but at its core it is an inquisition of ethics and language, of knowing (and not knowing) the self and others. In this framework, a person—any person—also “dances like a Bomb, abroad,” affecting others around them, their own bodies transformed through their movement and, sometimes, their breaking. The dramatic shift in voice and point of view in “The Ugly American” demonstrates what appears also to be a surprise for the poem’s speaker: that she has blood on her hands. It digs, too, through the inevitable sign and symbol of language—“Please / understand this isn’t metaphor,” the speaker says, breaking the third wall in direct address to its reader. Yet blood on one’s hands is a powerful metaphor because it attests to the reality that humans kill each other. It is metaphoric blood, remember, that Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth cannot wash from her hands. The gestating child in the poem, recalled by the speaker in the poem’s penultimate sentence, metaphorically bridges the space between the woman and the boys she watches. It is not our distance from each other, figured in the poem as the space of half a field, but the lack of distance between each other that bears both the wonder and the emotional force of this poem.

The gifts of The Explosive Expert’s Wife are that of sculpted lyric-narrative, gleaming formal variation, and a powerfully just gaze towards others and the speaker’s self. One particular example of the just gaze can be seen in the poem “The Long Flight Home,” which inverts expectations of narrative and storytelling through a series of denials. “Forget what I said about the black iris,” the speaker begins, “I thought the national / bird was the hawk.” In eight long-lined quatrains, the speaker discards any reputation or presumption of knowing. “Don’t ask me about the intifada,” says the speaker, “I was mostly wrong about women. I was mistaken / about men who deal arms.” A narrative slowly emerges, entwined with the speaker’s disavowals: “Forget what I said about the maid / locked in the apartment above us. I assumed her cries were // the wife’s—some ordinary marital strife.” Things are not as they seem or as we experience them, not even the simple things, and there is violence and political disruption interwoven with the speaker’s self-correcting statements: “The national bird’s a rosefinch; the national tree, a sub- / species of oak.” In the final quatrain and closing tercet, the speaker recalls waking to the crash of the maid leaping, “her femur shattered, the X-ray would show.” The poem’s last lines then leap to a recollection of the travelogue Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour:

_______________________________________The chapter on

faith says not long ago it was custom horses tramp the backs of
believers who lay in the street like dogs. It says distance clarifies
misunderstanding. I’m told the human plank would hold.

The speaker’s own experience of hearing the maid’s crashing fall contradicts Flaubert and the sensationalist characterization of the pious other as somehow superhuman, unbreakable. The speaker knows that the story told (e.g. that “the human plank would hold”) is different from what actually happened to the abused maid upstairs and the violence that happens everywhere and everyday to fragile human bodies, a subject throughout the pages of The Explosive Expert’s Wife. But if the history contained in Flaubert’s travelogue is subjective and suspect, what about the poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife, traversing foreign geographies, languages, customs?

One reply is that Lessley’s poems are spare when it comes to easy narrative consolation—instead choosing, like some of the best contemporary poets, including Natasha Trethewey, C.D. Wright, Philip Metres, and Patricia Smith, to give attention not only to national and institutional failures, but to the sharp edges of our failures with each other. That The Explosive Expert’s Wife does not provide an escape from a brutal world is part of its comfort, and makes it a text the reader can carry with them into the world, with its attentions to violence and tenderness resonant with human experience. Lessley’s poems remind us: “Because to cry’s / a sign, to cry is proof, / there’s life.”

Han VanderHart lives in Durham, North Carolina, under the pines. She has poetry and essays published in the Boston Globe, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, AGNI, and elsewhere. She is the reviews editor at EcoTheo Review, the editor at Moist Poetry Journal, and the author of the poetry collection What Pecan Light (Bull City Press, 2021). More from this author →