“I still myself / to listen” – a Review of Shara Lessley’s The Explosive Expert’s Wife
by Mary-Anne Clarke
…I still myself
These words from the poem ‘Aubade: Amman’ tell us that at the heart of Shara Lessley’s The Explosive Expert’s Wife we will find a listening voice. The poems speak through a deeply personal lyric ‘I’, using a sometimes insistent first-person that shifts between the narrative and the gnomic. But they also speak through a ‘still’, receptive, sensory awareness of surroundings, and a willingness to learn from and be changed by the people and the landscape of Amman, Jordan— the poet’s temporary home from 2010 to 2013.
Alongside the “I” of the eponymous wife, Lessley’s book is populated with external voices. There are the hostile fellow expats, who mistrust “the Jords” and wish only to “tune out the call to prayer” in ‘Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife’, the anonymous sick jokers on the internet in ‘Found Poem: No Joke’ and the freely stereotyping Americans back home in ‘They Ask Me to Send’. The intrusiveness of these darkly comic, brash voices is balanced by the time given to subtle and lyrical depictions of particular people that the poet has met in Jordan. As Lessley puts it in ‘The Long Flight Home’, “I was mostly wrong about women” and indeed, the women that appear in these poems are individuals, not the muted suffering mass depicted by the western media. There are tragic, sensory, imagistic depictions of ‘The Accused Terrorist’s Wife’ and ‘The Clinic Bomber’s Mother’, as well as hopeful, regenerative glimpses of ‘the Middle East’s first all-female demining team’ (the dedicatee of the first poem in the collection), and the poet’s close friend and fellow mother, Rania. Reading these, we get a sense of individual characters, but at the same time we recognise that we can never know these women fully: the fresh, at times almost surreal quality of the poems’ images ensuring that we as readers never feel ownership or overfamiliarity.
Lessley cannot speak for the people of Jordan, nor does she try to do so: unlike the comic monologue ventriloquising the predecessor’s wife, the poems featuring the women of Amman tend to be more abstract, offering snatches of images and sounds through a haze of sensory perceptions. The poet can only speak as one who has lived amongst the beauty and tragedy of the war-scarred land. For this reason, Lessley’s poems are at their strongest when they employ a timeless, gnomic voice, that is personal and yet at the same time emerges from the landscape and the emotions bound up with it. The first of two ‘Arab Spring’ poems exemplifies this beautiful simplicity:
…The wind doesn’t choose
what it moves…
…but I say grief is what goes
Playing to Lessley’s strength in gentle but forceful pronouncements, the book’s most effective verse forms are those which leave plenty of white space on the page, letting her voice ring through the stillness of recollected experience.
These crystalline, self-sufficient utterances are noticeable throughout all the best poems of the collection. The poet acknowledges a debt to Federico García Lorca in her notes to ‘First Days: August’, and this influence is evident elsewhere too, redolent in Lessley’s not infrequent use of short imagistic phrases, and in her skill of attuning her senses to weather and natural processes. The line “Ice snuffs/the maples, my agitated heart”, for example, accords with the mood of the Spanish poet, when he writes: “Y en la tarde brumosa / mi corazón aprende / la tragedia otoñal / que los árboles llueven” (“And in the misty evening / my heart learns / the autumnal tragedy / that the trees rain”, from the poem ‘Otra Canción’).
Lessley’s collection is a comic, tragic, hopeful, anxious collage, united in all its vibrancy and variation by her strongly realised voice, which sometimes hangs back and sometimes comes to the fore, but is always present. It is a voice that emerges out of the place where landscape and experience meet, as organic as the image of rain that fills the poet’s mouth in the second ‘Arab Spring’:
in an act of foolishness
or faith, I raised
the desert of
my mouth and the
it with rain.