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Excerpts from reviews of A Darker, Sweeter String

Edythe Haendel Schwartz, Calyx Journal

Echoing Carolyn Forché's poetry of witness, the poems in Lee Sharkey's A Darker, Sweeter String are imbued with a yearning for peace, and while war in its many faces is omnipresent in these beautifully wrought poems, so also is the sense of home. Through a collection rich in the diversity of its attention—Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Israel, the U.S.—Sharkey explores, through a broad and compassionate lens, the pain of violence, be it of hegemony, rooted in historic mistrust, or perpetrated in the name of righteousness.

While to express outrage is clearly Sharkey's intent, this outrage is softened with meditation and hope. In a collection that shifts from fear for the fragility of a child'd life, as in the long poem "Unscripted," to fear of mass annihilation in contexts of global conflict, the poet's thirst for peace and determination to patiently stand vigil against hatred and destruction is palpable. In riveting lines that move slowly enough to enable the reader to digest these truths, Lee Sharkey compels the reader to read, and read again. A Darker, Sweeter String, a collection that embodies the spirit that we can resolve what rends us, is a must read.

Sonja James, The Monserrat Review

In her wise and humane collection, Lee Sharkey artfully disguises a poetics of witness as a poetics of transparency. As a matter of fact, the poems are so crystalline, clear, and pure that each subject of scrutiny attains a comprehensive relevance which does not fail to touch the heart of the reader. Sharkey’s deft and deliberate fusion of the global with the personal transforms mere confession into a searching examination of universal human rights and the suffering which is always present throughout the world. The poems lend a voice to the voiceless and bear witness to our collective need for an understanding of the unspeakable. And yet, we are always aware that the speaker is an American woman forging these perceptions from a vantage of distance and safety. . . .Sharkey assumes an almost mystical control of poems exploring the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians, unrest in Iran and the Balkans, and violence against women in Somalia. . . . “On the anniversary of the invasion” provides perhaps the best summation of this ambitious and courageous book. The speaker is in bed with her lover, and their mingled breath travels across oceans and continents to brush the faces of distant people as if the breath were wind. . . .Lee Sharkey startles us and uproots us from our complacent tendency to sympathize without acting. She lifts us and cradles us, reminding us that we, too, are distant observers whose breath can travel like a friendly wind. A Darker, Sweeter String is a book for the stalwart as well as the gentle. In its pages we are reminded that when humanity bleeds, mere ink and the passion to describe are never enough.

Melissa M.Crowe, The Cafe Review

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. . . . 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 plain-spoken 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 A 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.

Irene Koronas, Wilderness House Literary Review

Lee Sharkey’s sparse, emphatic look at the past/present frees the reader,  like "sudden pure white," to pursue our own responsibility to understand how frail existence is. . . . This is not an easy book of poetry, (for me, at least) each poem compels me to read more, to put the book aside, take it up again.

It is thought that cows’ unhurried lowing
the rise and fall in the evening of toad ululation,
the dense sweet penetration of grasses
in air drawn through the nostrils and deep into lungs
will offer our minds a place to return to
from the caves where they cower

If you buy no other book for the next five years, this is a must, must read, must possess, must repeat.

Tony Brinkley, Puckerbrush Review

The poetics of A Darker, Sweeter String might be characterized by anonymous phrases it has brought to the page where they come to life and demand a response from which they remain irreconcilable, where we are left circling their incommensurate claim to existence.                         we’re circling the hole where the ones
                        who abandoned us lie              absent              electric             (“The suicides”)
Spaces shift. Palestine, Bosnia, Somalia, L’vov. “Fuck, says the wall, awaiting its mural //  . . . The farmer, the wall, the olives. The oil is bursting their skins” (“Separation wall”). And a few pages further, with terrible precision: “Left hand wets a cloth and runs it over the rip in the stitched vagina” (“We both drink the water; neither can describe its taste”). And a few pages further: “Take off your clothes. Or, not a word spoken. Contempt so intense it delivers the burn on the inside” (“My clothes have caught fire at both ends”). If I have been constructing an extended montage of passages from A Darker, Sweeter String, that is because this arrangement reflects my sense of Sharkey’s writing as documentary montage, as a kind of cinematic work. On the other hand, to the extent that documentary can be expected to contextualize, Sharkey’s writing does not document in any normative sense. Nor does it offer the reassurance of narrative continuities. The montage is without establishing shots. Where normative documentary stages against a background, Sharkey’s poetry only foregrounds. What happened happens again, a kind of past-present but in fragments and independent of interpretation, without regard for what we understand. Perhaps it is less a question of understanding than of listening—of listening and later joining, perhaps, voicing the choral alchemies of recurrence. Perhaps what is most remarkable in this altogether remarkable writing is that it not only brings back to life but that in doing so ethically, it does so without reassurance.

John Deming, Coldfront Magazine

Much of Lee Sharkey’s new book reminds us of the extent to which the notion of “one vs. many” marks the natural flux of things. For example, the inevitable death of a beloved individual vs. the inevitable annihilation of the human race en masse. But Sharkey’s focused obsession on inevitability is never completely absent of hope. Hope emerges from an unfathomable blend of urgency and patience, which is embodied by the careful fragmentation of her poems. . . .Brutality is fact in this asteroid-smash of a universe, and human beings can’t be expected to be an exception; Sharkey understands this. Without horror, we can’t frame virtue anyway; without death, we can’t frame life: “How beautiful is the gift of mourning.” All over the natural world, there is a thin line dividing pleasure and pain: “Desire so intense that she eats him / mandibles cracking his skull.” These things rely on each other.The poet, of course, makes nothing explicit; with her space, her fragmentation and her open endings, she is already leaving us. So are the people she loves. She is sad. And thankfully, her fragmentation, her open-ended semi-prose stanzas and her effortless sense of distance offer a focused and alluring read. The poems are individually titled, but the book reads more like a series, a self-contained long poem, a sustained inspiration.