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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


"'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


Walking Backwards is available from Tupelo Press.