A Darker, Sweeter String

by Lee Sharkey,
Weld: Off the Grid Press, 2009,
96 pages, $15.00,
ISBN10: 0977842916, ISBN13: 9780977842919
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When I think about Lee Sharkey’s A Darker, Sweeter String, the word that comes to mind is liminal.  The poems, again and again, occupy that bewildering space between then and now, between present and future, populating the shifting temporal landscape with their characters and critters.  Voices seem to speak from these places as an attempt to mark time, the way folding the corner of the page marks my place in the book.  The poems themselves also reveal, however, that time cannot be kept in this way.  In Sharkey’s poems, deliberate movement from past to present to future is simultaneously enacted and made impossible, not by some fixed boundary, but by the nature of time as Sharkey paints it: layered, the past always a painful pentimento.

In “Where the raven was,” for example, objects and animals milk, a raven, a stream mark out the landscape, attempting to delineate a physical and temporal space: “There is a stream there is milk there is a raven / There is a stream of milk there is where the raven was / There was milk there was a stream.”  As objects compete to occupy the same spot in time, verb tense shifts sometimes the milk is and sometimes it was, located in the same space as the stream or where the stream was, but Sharkey goes on to write, “By the stream always it is now,” making the assertion of this past tense deliberately questionable.

Lest we regard the poem or the book at large as mere theoretical exercise, Sharkey shows us quickly and clearly what’s at stake, nothing less than “the dead child forever leaving / The new child arriving in a pod of milk.”  Perhaps the most accurate and searing revelation here is that if, by the stream, it is always “now,” milk is eternal, but so is loss.  In the poem’s final lines, Sharkey writes, “Where the raven was there was a stream the milk was stolen / The stream spills over every body floats.”  “Every body” is, here, floating in a stream no longer present, possibly a stream of stolen milk, making stream and milk once more abundant in the current moment, restoring a thing taken through violence and simultaneously by an act as simple as making “every body” two words giving the lie to the very notion of restoration.

As evident in “Where the raven was,” with its continuous repetition and revision, Sharkey is thrillingly experimental in A Darker, Sweeter String, arriving at something heartbreaking and necessary by following her own wordplay with what appears a brave and abiding faith.  Just as striking are the book’s plainspoken lines, its disarming moments of pure lucidity.  In “Obviously dead,” Sharkey tells us “This is a house where no one owns her body,” and I think she means this house, the one we are living in, where “not a ligament but comes undone.”  We are always both the dead child leaving and the new child arriving.  When Sharkey writes of “the ghost who’s hungry” leaning in to sip from the lips of the living, I can’t help thinking that we are the hungry ghosts sipping from our own lips, stealing our own milk all the time as moments slip from us, irretrievable, each one swallowed by the next.  As a reader, I am simultaneously seduced and unnerved by Sharkey’s strange and ferocious honesty.

There are moments of comfort, though even here Sharkey’s vision is uncompromising.  In the love poem “By Moonlight,” the speaker begins by insisting, “One of us will leave the other sure enough / while one of us disintegrates to never having been,” but the poem ends with these lines: “whoever holds the dying other / will inhale one last time in unison // both of us will listen / to the green incessant wind.”  And in the long poem “Unscripted,” the speaker intones, “Blessed art thou / suspirer of the Universe / wingbreaker / healer of wings.”  The voice here is one of ferocity and tenderness, and it addresses a world that mirrors this mixture of apparently incongruous qualities the world in which we give birth to sons and watch them die of disease or in war and while Sharkey never shies away from this searing truth, there is never a note of resignation in The Darker, Sweeter String.  We are never tempted, either, to believe that the layered time she creates in the book the “always now” renders the past and future meaningless.  This is the true magic, for me that Sharkey collapses time without ever becoming a historical history matters all the more in this book for the way in which it infuses this very moment, the future we are making right now a ghost sipping from our lips.  Because Sharkey is willing to take enormous risks, both in terms of content and in terms of style, she creates something that is often breathtaking, frightening, and yes sweet.

Melissa M. Crowe