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WALKING BACKWARDS

“Step by step, line by free-floating line, Lee Sharkey walks backwards into the Jewish catastrophe in this deep book of remembrance—a collection of parables, an ongoing conversation with the dead, a tablet of fire.” —Edward Hirsch


Employing a variety of formal strategies—lyrics, parables, testimony, paratactic narratives, recastings of Torah stories, and inter-leavings with other texts—the poems in Lee Sharkey’s Walking Backwards offer a complex vantage on cultural erasure and persistence. Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, and the Yiddish-language poets Abraham Sutzkever and Peretz Markish become contemporaries in an era of refugees as her words mingle with theirs to bear the weight of the unspoken. “What have we come for,” the poet asks, “to sleep where the dead slept in the bed of our absence?”


"In Walking Backwards, Lee Sharkey deftly gleans the ancient stories and old cities for news, picking from Biblical narratives and old poems the grains that might feed us in our hunger. Like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History–whose wings are buffeted inexorably into the future while facing the past—Sharkey walks backwards through Jerusalem and Vilno, witnessing the ghosts of refugees and concentration camp victims, while cradling a tender vision of kindness and hope. ‘So we mark our dark accomplishment,’ she writes, ‘Drawn between us, a line like living hair.’ I’m so grateful for Walking Backwards, its ‘scalded beauty’ and words that ‘light the long slumber.’” —Philip Metres


"In 21st-century America, what makes Jewish art? In Walking Backwards, Lee Sharkey touches the borders of themes—the Holocaust, Israel, Old Testament narrative—that might traditionally define a 'Jewish writer' in a lineup of her gentile peers, but never allows those outsize subjects to diminish her lyric focus on the. individual. . . .

"An intimate question that punctuates the entire volume: how does—how should—a living individual serve as a vessel for cultural memory, especially a culture rehabilitating from extreme erasure, as Jewish
memory still struggles to do? . . .

"In 'Something We Might Give,' Sharkey again looks for a mandate, for what the surviving generation ought to carry forward, and how. From here on, all knowledge is fragmented, all survival is unlikely: 'What joy in a stone here, a skeleton stone / A satchel, a compact, two small gold earrings / Scavengers piece the question together.' The collection nearly ends on an answer taken from a speech by Paul Celan: 'For there remained amid these losses this one thing: language.' But as Sharkey writes earlier, the memory keeper’s problem is that language is also part of the loss: 'The tongue complicit: cleansed, denuded.' What to do with memory, then? Speak it, write it. And Sharkey does, having the last word and perhaps
the words beyond that, as the poets would have wished."—Leah Falk, FIELD


"'Tell all the truth / but tell it slant,' Emily Dickinson says. Because we don’t need words shaped for a bullhorn, words to be miked and carried across a stadium. We need news, but not just the newspaper kind. We need words that enter the crevasses of our minds, that whisper in our ear with living breath and music that lingers. Music drawn from the fragments of who we are and where we come from, mixed with the words of those we have met along the way.

"And that is what we find in Walking Backwards. . . . These are poems of moral urgency. Through the refining fire of her art, Lee Sharkey transforms that urgency into form and voice. Her lines resonate deeply within us. The boundaries between the living and the dead, between past and present, self and other become permeable, and communal. 'Even now, a century later: ink stain on my fingers,' the poet says, as she explores how we both write and are written by history." —Betsy Sholl


"There is a Primo Levi-like honesty here, a capacity, beyond romanticization, for recognizing psycho-cultural forces that create folktales and archetypes, bridge present to past. The eternal question: Can we learn from the past? How can we know those who were once as alive as we—we who will one day become tales and images? How can we, as ancestors, bridge to our children’s children? And they to us?. . . Sharkey is at once a teacher and a poet of near-sublime illumination, her every page a candle. . . .

"Walking Backwards is about communion, reunion, dialogue—a hasidic tale repairing the torn fabric of the universe, an attempt at restoration of human covenants, an Einsteinian walk along the space-time continuum of history. It is the rare
poet who so deftly distills the historical record into poetic forms."
Anna Wrobel, Jewish Currents


"On these pages we face the faces that have drifted off to . . .. 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." —Karl Plank, Consequence Magazine


"As a humanitarian poet, Sharkey possesses the indispensable gifts of vision, tenacity, compassion, and originality. . . . Walking Backwards powerfully resurrects the agony of the Holocaust, not by creating images of genocide, but by inventing a relationship with the language of the Jewish poets who protest the world’s barbarity. —Sonja James, The Journal


Walking Backwards is available from Tupelo Press.