Shara Lessley’s first collection of poetry, Two-Headed Nightingale, trails into its pages the aesthetic drift of the numerous journals in which many of the poems were first published. Nonetheless, it is a remarkably tight and effective book, unified by Lessley’s shrewdness and formidable powers of appraisal. She casts her lens here and there, but with great discrimination. The voice behind these poems is a prism that angles waning light on the sharp outlines of objects that will very soon fade, and the end result, in the form of this volume, is the full fruit of a long, tireless pursuit to preserve those outlines at any cost. This is often what readers seek most in a collection of poetry, and something that seems to be sorely lacking among the many recent books overrun with “conceits” and “concepts,” voices diluted by cold irony and hipness. A reader of poetry cannot ask for more than to be shown discarded bits of the world and let into another human being’s personal nightmare of admission. To be shown how and why the wasting of life goes on and what is left to hold onto in the midst of all that irrelevance is the at the crux of poetic expression, and Two-Headed Nightingale comes very close to hitting it bang on the spot.
Lessley is at her best when she is not casting judgment or issuing opinion; fortunately, she does so very seldom. What abounds are her vivid descriptions of the world and its oddities: creatures and nascent plants, the wordless made worded. Opening the book and Part I are three remarkable poems, “Fallen Starling,” “Captive,” and “The Peninsula.” In “Captive” we receive the greatest indication of what is to come, “I might be // capable of love, if only to withhold it.” The starling appraises its own wasting with heartbreaking precision, and at the peninsula an “orange canker // [festers] in the leaves and brush.” There is a surprising keenness for fine detail and description in Lessley’s narratives, which are nonetheless compact and attention-grabbing. The constant gathering-in of the outside world’s harm and ugliness to the sanctum of an inner theater that is home to a lovely and conflicted mind is a huge success.
At the middle of the collection, in parts II and III, the poems “Two-Headed Nightingale” and the strange “The Old Life” prove less accessible at first read. You must pick your way carefully through them, unsure of whether to immerse yourself fully in their trappings. This is an unfamiliar universe of hostile stages, quirky shadow characters and pricked-at-the-toe dancers. But don’t worry, you’ll be back: I’ll explain why later.
One or two poems come and go in this section without leaving as deep a footprint as their counterparts, taking their surroundings at face value. But they are followed by “Genealogical Survey across Several Counties,” “Having It Out With God,” and “Tooth of the Lion.” In “Genealogical,” ancient family portraits of dazzling anxiety and sadness and bloodshed come to life in a fine paean to the past and present with a touching finish that, like so many of Lessley’s poems, leaves you with a hole in your heart and dangling question mark that you ache to replace with a period. “Having It Out With God,” which is positively Sexton-esque, thrusts out the line “If there is a God, I doubt // I have the heart to bear it” in its middle, and the whole of it is so well cared-for and tuned – its lines, its allowances, the surrounding scene it draws on to illuminate the interior struggle – that it stands alone as a fine work of art and demands several readings. “Tooth of the Lion” begins with lists of what is not – and what is, the simple dent-de-lion, or dandelion, is defined by its starkest and ugliest qualities, giving the steadfast errand it runs to seed itself a peculiar glow.
Part IV sees a journey to a darker corner of exploration and explicitness: the father and his unforgivable sins, inability to understand the decline of living flesh that girds and scaffolds, and a sense of groping in near-darkness to grab at what is left of what has gone. The poem “Prometheus as Sparrow” aptly closes this section, harking back to “Fallen Starling.” But now, the bird watches not only its death but its devouring at the vulgar mouth of a crow, and as its entrails are ripped away another voice is interspersed, weaving a cautionary tale in offset italics – that “denial [is] the myth we live and die by.”
Part V is the brilliant Self-Portrait as (Super/Sub) Pacific. One of the most fervent and intricate self-portraits I have read, this work, at 9 pages, builds like a wave over the shoulders of a rising self-image that draws up and pulls into itself everything around it: the sea, the shelf, the creatures below, and the sun above, to depict the splintered psyche that has, along with its memories, “turned to relics; I bury them in sand.” The unifying line, “Mother says the sea is a woman // tossing nature’s greatest curves,” nets in more: ships at harbor, marine snow, turtles laying eggs whose sex will be decided by heat, a nurse shark with a human arm in its stomach, countless animals laying ruthless waste to their prey, and turns it all inward to proclaim “what choice have I but to devour” and “I, too, have found it easy parting with // the heart” until, after the moonrise over the Pacific’s “restless hills,” we are left knowing that “no myth I was holds true.” Instead of presenting as bleak, this rousing completion leaves room for warmth and, dare I say, hope. Self-Portrait as (Super/Sub) Pacific leaves such a resounding smack that my first response was to reread and rediscover what came before it – twice. Those myths, after all – “daughter lover sister other”, were made to be broken, and who better to break them than a voice that can so cleanly bring life to other forms, and reestablish them as new, more dazzling shapes that can, no doubt, be washed away and rebuilt when the time comes.
Highly-recommended. A copy was provided by the publisher.
Lessley, Shara 2012, Two-Headed Nightingale, New Issues, Kalamazoo, MI.