Wars, Wives, Mothers: Poetry by Shara Lessley and Pamela Hart

The title of Shara Lessley’s poetry volume The Explosive Expert’s Wife refers to the poet’s husband’s job as a post-blast investigator and demining specialist. The specific biographical stimulus for the poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife is the husband’s three-year tour in Amman, Jordan, where his wife accompanied him. The poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife reflect a connected fascination with violence associated with war, mines, and bombs and the geography and culture of the Arab world. Three poems in the volume are literally titled “The Explosive Expert’s Wife”; these speak to the author’s concern that her identity and lived-life depend heavily on her husband’s job. Explosive-related technical language saturate them, but the insider knowledge does little to efface, and in fact contributes to, the dominant tones of loneliness and fear. Loneliness not just in the face of her husband’s frequent deployment, but in that even when her husband is home he is not fully “there” because of the all-consuming nature of his job. Fear, for the obvious reasons:

…I don’t know // where the dead go, only that / you promise to make it home // by supper, the hem of your pants / singed with ash.

In other poems, Lessley describes the incongruity of maintaining domestic tranquility and familial pretense with such a husband, with such a job, while on the edges of war. Other poems contemplate bombings in America: the Boston Marathon bombing, a school bombing, an abortion clinic bombing, among others. The idea here is that a weapon emblematic of terrorist and fundamentalist war overseas is also employed frighteningly frequently on native grounds, too, thus troubling easy distinctions between home-front and war-zone.  Throughout, Lessley employs mine, bomb, and explosion imagery to figuratively portray poetry as an expression of inner turmoil and potential danger—a conceit prefigured in the work’s epigraph from Emily Dickinson:

The Soul has moments of Escape— / When bursting all the doors— / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, / And swings upon the Hours

For all the above, the subject of most of the poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife is the Jordanian world that Lessley comes to know intimately. Her sensibility defined by curiosity and empathy, Lessley’s alert vision and facility for nuance are given play by views not available to most–several poems reference her experience giving birth to one of her children in a Jordanian hospice. Lessley’s poetry, along with the works of former-Marine Elliot Ackerman and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon, render the impression that some of the most alert, knowing inside looks at contemporary Arab and Muslim life written by Americans are coming from writers, for better or worse, like it or not, associated with American military might. The effort to transcend platitude and stereotype plays out in many poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife. “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife,” for example, sardonically lists the reductive, brutalizing “wisdom” passed on to Lessley by other ex-pat Americans:

…Blondes are often mistaken / for hookers; consider dying your hair. / By September or October you’ll learn to / tune out the call for prayer.

In a similar vein, “The Marine Ball” describes the incongruity of a fancy-dress military ball held in a hotel that previously was the site of a suicide bombing attack—a recognition of an historical dimension that only Lessley considers important, or even remembers. Set against the backdrop of such cultural-historical obliviousness are poems that display finer powers of observation and subtler processing of impressions. “Scent of the Gods,” (my favorite) juxtaposes the flatulent stench of modern Jordanian public spaces with the rich aromas and other sensory splendors of a traditional bazaar. Another, “In Arabic” packs a surprising amount of Arabic grammatical and calligraphic detail into a short lyrical meditation on linguistic meaning-making. Some of these poems record the poet’s movement into closer empathetic alignment with Arab customs and sensibility, while others address cultural differences that prompt dismay and even aggravation. Among these are several poems that contemplate the subjugation of women in Jordanian public life while remaining alert for hints of rebellion and moments of connection. One of the most arresting poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife, “The Ugly American,” describes an event that brings an American woman to the point of violent interjection into a troubling Jordanian street scene. Coming upon a group of boys tormenting a helpless donkey, Lessley writes:

The boys beat the jennet because they could, / out of boredom, because she was in heat, // they beat her with sticks and switches and clods / of dirt.

In response, the American woman described in the poem clenches a rock in her hand and prepares to defend the donkey against the youth, when at poem’s end a native elder steps in to shoo the boys away. Does the poem describe an isolated instance or is it exemplary evidence of something profound? Is it an epiphany offering self-understanding or is it a parable of power and conflict? These are complexities facing the character in the poem as the action unfolds, the poet as she describes the event, and readers in their moment of interpretation.

Shara Lessley’s webpage can be found here.

In her 2018 poetry volume Mothers Over Nangarhar, Pamela Hart describes a crisis-of-understanding generated by her son’s enlistment in the Army and subsequent deployment to Afghanistan. Several poems explain that Hart’s son, against her mother’s wishes, was fascinated by the military from childhood; the poet asserts, sans question-mark, “Did I raise him to be a warrior,” as if the words had ceased being a query and were now a fundamental reality. Hart’s son’s actual deployment intensifies the stakes: “This is the story of the idea of war and the son who might kill or be killed,” she writes. Linking the poems in Mothers Over Nangarhar is the conceit that mother and son learn about military culture and war together: “My pencil writing its way into the story of a son.” The start-point for this epistemological journey, for the mother at least, is incomprehension: “The signs are signs of other things. What do I as a mother know of this. Nothing.” Trying to resist being a helicopter mom, to make a cringe-worthy analogy, nor implying that she now lives vicariously through her son, Hart stakes out a familial and authorial position in which she retains dignity while searching for wisdom in the midst of dismay and fear. As the poems follow one another, she gains understanding, and she establishes a small foothold in the military world through participation in family support activities. The increasing knowledge and surer social position brings worry, however, that the military now dominates her life—her thoughts, her social relationships, her daily activities—as much as it does her son’s. As Rowan Ricardo Phillips states in his fine introduction, “The book circles its subject with the poignant uncertainty of whether it is merely observing or being dragged down into the depths.” Or, as “The Women” puts it:

We unspool our biggest / dread and make / it into a beautiful spider

What Phillips calls Hart’s “poignant uncertainty” makes some of the images and lines in Mothers Over Nangarhar, to quote Phillips some more, “mazy,” suggestive in the way of the book’s epigram from Rimbaud—“Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere.” In other words, evocative and possibly profound, but not especially concrete in terms of detail, intent and effect, and explanations of higher-order links between individual service and global warfare. Others, however, pop with unexpected impression and connection. On a personal level, I was delighted to read of the “stucco houses, the red-tiled roofs” of Fort Benning, GA, since I once lived in such a house at the “Home of the Infantry” (as the Army, not Hart, calls it), and both my sons were born at Fort Benning. Another poem, “My Soldier,” about a visit to Mount Vernon the poet makes with her son, astonished me with its coincidental relevance, since I had just visited Mount Vernon myself two weeks before reading Hart’s poem. There, as does Hart in her poem, I had mused about the circuits connecting domestic space, family, “The Father of Our Country,” war-fighting, and my own military career. Several poems (to include the title poem) use maps, land navigation, satellite images, and drone perspectives as geo-visual metaphors for the quest for knowledge; in so doing they, again to quote Phillips, operate “[s]omewhere between theory and therapy but free of the constraints of both.” My favorite poems in Mothers Over Nangarhar emit a distinct, confident sense of themselves from start-to-finish. For me, these are “Praise Song,” “At the Shooting Range,” “Jalalabad,” and most of all “Kevlar Poem,” about Stephanie Kwolek, the Dupont scientist who invented Kevlar. “Praise Song” and “Kevlar Poem” are not available online, but “At the Shooting Range” and another excellent one, “Jalalabad,” are, at Hart’s webpage, so I invite you to check them out and then read Mothers Over Nangarhar entire.

Shara Lessley, The Explosive Expert’s Wife. Wisconsin UP, 2018.

Pamela Hart, Mothers Over Nangarhar. Sarabande Books, 2018.

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