These six poems by the late Lee Sharkey are part of a series in response to the paintings of Samuel Bak, and will appear in her new book due out from Tupelo next spring. The paintings we are including here, with the generous permission of the Pucker Gallery, are not the precise ones Lee was writing about, but provide a window, like Lee does, into his world.
Lee says of the poems: “At age eight, when he and his family were summarily herded into the Vilna ghetto, Samuel Bak was already recognized as a singularly talented young visual artist. The poet Abraham Sutzkever, among others, took him under his wing, arranging drawing lessons for him; with their aid, Bak and his mother survived. Now 87 and living in Massachusetts, he continues to paint prodigiously. His work defies categorization, combining elements of surrealism, classical representation, and a personal vocabulary of metonymic objects. The Pucker Gallery in Boston regularly mounts new exhibitions of his work. My poems incorporate imagery—and sometimes titles—from the paintings to take off for other realms.”
I would add that the poems could be called surreal in some ways, but they also include a folktale quality, a hint of narrative, and a sense of being embedded in daily life. The themes concern catastrophe, survival, and transformation, and look at the little people who carry the weight of the world—that is, the people who, in their vulnerable and spare lives, bear witness and enable the world to go on in some true way, people who may lose everything, “but not what makes you human.” That is at the heart of this series: an exploration of what makes us human, through poems that don’t lead to an easy extraction or summary of meaning, but which require us to engage, to imagine, to celebrate and grieve. There’s the mendicant staring up at the luminous pear, and the women who have been stripped of all their finery and have become shameless. “Never enough grace. Never enough beauty,” Sharkey says, and yet there is “in the most inhospitable circumstances, time for a cup of tea”—because these poems are searching for what connects us, even in a world full of destruction and loss.
I have included the names of the poetry journals in which these poems first appeared. Lee Sharkey was a poet, teacher and activist, and a long-time editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal. She passed away this October.
Betsy Sholl, MAJ Poetry Editor
He imagines a pear that bursts open, revealing a white pear within, not so much the pear itself as a capacious pear taking hold in him, whose peace surpasses understanding, like the gibbous moon rising plump yet austere over town and countryside. I come upon him, his robe belted with fraying twine, a mendicant gazing up at a luminous pear. What do you have there? He holds out his palm. A white pear, a home for the lost, here they are at the window.
She has nothing to cover herself but the peel of an apple and an unruly square of cloth that rears like a sail every time the wind or a pistol shot whistles past her. Gone are the wool suits with their fitted jackets, the silk stockings with rule-straight seams, the three-inch heels she wobbled in over the cobblestones, the collar of silver fox. Her eyebrows groomed to a perfect arch. All the women are out walking. Everything has already happened. They have become shameless, tossed hither and yon in apple skins and orange rinds and billowing togas, unhatted and unpinned.
The scroll of the Law’s gone blank. An angel unrolls and holds it. A hole the size of a country appears in it, with tears branching out. Look, look! says the Angel of Melancholy, pointing to the rupture. It’s the inverse of the gesture for blessing that hovers over the tiny shack on the workbench before him, where smoke rises from the chimney. The woman who lives there has lit candles, covered her eyes, muttered the prayer over bread. She sits for a moment as stars rise in the heavens. Bending to lift a letter that fell from the scroll of the Law, she carries it to bed.
Never enough grace. Never enough beauty. Never enough destruction makes for never enough blessing. Abundance in rubble. Everything a household needs. Wine bottle, salad bowl, knife, cup, kettle lid, three-legged chair. Haggadah. Frame for a painting. A woman’s scarves drape in the dirt in soft pastels. At the top of a heap a man in rags reclines on a wine-dark cushion. A hole in a wall the shape of the absence of God touches his fingertip. Languid exhaustion. Weapons have come to rest. A beauty born of forgetting.
The capital burns on the horizon, tumbles into the lowland between hill and hill. So many dead, so many fled to this border shantytown, where we set up walls of wood scrap and cloth, scavenge food, shape beds of straw, prop up our gods. Soon it’s a regular city. A chess set appears. A soccer ball. A dictionary. Twin decks of cards. For a moment a soft blue light suffuses everything. Already it seems we have lived here forever. A woman pulls up her skirt, feels for the gold coins in her hem. Children are laughing. A man fingers the watch in his pocket.
Even in the most inhospitable circumstances there is always time for a cup of tea. Say you live in a cup with a hole in its side in a blasted landscape, by a blasted tree and an empty barrel. You can still park your worn down shoes side by side at the door and steep your questions in hot water. Since you are a person of letters, I imagine you have many. As steam brushes your cheeks you may read the leaves. Take your time. The wind is aroused and the clouds are either massing or clearing. You have lost everything but not what makes you human. I don’t mean your coat and tie.
(Four Way Review)