June 28, 2019KR Reviews

Brushing Dust from Cluster Bombs: Shara Lessley’s The Explosive Expert’s Wife

Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2018. 80 pages. $14.95.

One might consider Yeats’ well-known declaration “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry,” when reading Shara Lessley’s extraordinary collection, The Explosive Expert’s Wife. In these poems, speakers frequently “quarrel” with issues involving identity: mother, foreigner, expat, American, just to name a few.

In the first of the four poems sharing the book’s title, the speaker—simply referred to as the “wife”—struggles with her own ambivalence being both supportive and trepidatious in relation to her husband’s dangerous occupation. However, in the poem, we learn, not about the “wife,” but instead, often in terse, declarative statements, details involving the husband, or the “Explosive Expert,” through the wife’s perspective:

                          He’s leaving for Kabul again,
this time for sixty-five days.
(It’s better for us than Baghdad with overtime and haz-pay.)
He’ll need shaving cream and toothpaste, fresh undershirts and socks.
He’ll need a ride to the drop-off point
near the strip mall’s outlet shops.

We gradually understand that this “explosive expert” investigates everything from C4 “stashed in a DCA trashcan” to booby-trapped “pizza boxes and books” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen. The poem is, generally, about his needs at home, about preparing for his next assignment. The wife is a silent figure who can fetch him “shaving cream and toothpaste,” drive him to the strip mall’s “drop-off point,” cook him chicken which, he says, “tastes just right.” During dinner, as “the dog jumps on his lap”—the echo here to Odysseus’s return to Penelope, and his dog, Argos—one senses the growing distance between the speaker and husband. While the dog greets him, the speaker notes the attempt at romance, “He strokes my arm, asks Later tonight?” However, in a moment which complicates the “explosive expert” and pushes deeper into the human being buried behind that military bureaucratic euphemism, the “he” suddenly takes recognition of his wife: “Napkin crumpled, he pushes back his plate— / Now tell me everything, he says, / about your day today.” Brilliantly, the poem ends here, on this cliff-hanger. Lessley’s book answers and interrogates this imperative.

Throughout the collection, various personae speak: American expatriate, tourist, bride, an “accused terrorist’s wife,” a “clinic bomber’s mother” in America. The book presents a panorama of life as an expatriate in Jordan, then later in Washington and Virginia, with a husband busily at work investigating and defusing explosives. Although the collection explores that often overlooked or silenced perspective—the woman behind the “explosive expert,” whether the “expert” be the one designing or defusing—these poems interrogate identity, place, and, most significantly, the complicated perspective of an expatriate. In one outing near Shmeisani, the speaker says, “We’re trespassers / however you cut it.” In “Ex-pat Ghazal,” as the speaker ruminates upon her life in Amman, the poem ends with a question that reverberates throughout the book and suggests the very “American” act of being present in a Middle Eastern country due to the husband’s expertise: “am I more or less American in Amman?”

In “The Ugly American,” one of the more complicated poems quarreling with identity, there is a constant internal wavering over what one has permission to do, or say, as an “outsider” or “foreigner.” In the opening, the speaker describes “a woman, very pregnant” who, because her husband is off “snapping photos near Q’asr al-Bint,” watches boys beat and harass a jennet. Outside the ancient city of Petra, we’re informed that the boys are idle only because “revolution had stalled the usual / parade of buses and there were no tourists to ferry / up 800 rock-cut steps to The Monastery.” Referencing the Arab Spring, the poem shows its ripple effect on tourism, the overall economy, and how these boys, now without work, in their boredom and idleness, continue to assault the animal:

And when the boys cheered and laughed
and thrust their hips and whipped the jennet,

baiting their donkeys to mount her,
the woman, too, picked up a stone, though

she was half a field away; she heard herself
curse, think every stupid soulless thing

she’d heard about the filth borne of this region.

In this moment, rife with the silent encounter between the adult American expat and the local Jordanian boys, the speaker admits her own capacity for prejudice, violence. Indeed, the speaker quarrels over her own tendency to judge, to stereotype. The moment, I think, might satisfy Robert Duncan’s edict written in 1971 in a letter to Denise Levertov: “The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it.” Though one could—and Levertov does—quarrel with this statement, I believe the speaker, wisely, is imagining the inchoate, ever-present “evil” inside the self through the action of picking up a stone. Suddenly, a local emerges: “an uncle? cousin?—came / charging, freed the jennet as it brayed then loped.” Turning from third to first person, the poem concludes with a remarkable epiphany:

As they joked and kicked up sand, it was then she felt

deep within the son she had forgotten. Please
understand this isn’t metaphor: when

I dropped the rock, I had blood on my hand.

Although the voice urges readers to avoid metaphor, one can’t help but interpret the entire scene as analogous to America’s “bloody hands” and its penchant, especially since 9/11, to intervene, invade, to pick up a stone. The “blood” left on the hand suggests the complicity in human judgment, violence, which, in this context, is specifically American.

Other poems in the book take place stateside after the husband departs yet again for work, the speaker meditating upon marriage, loneliness: “I followed you like a fault / line out to western Virginia . . . You’ve been overseas / four days.” In “The Clinic Bomber’s Mother,” we inhabit a speaker adjusting, trying to continue a seemingly normal life, all while reckoning with her deceased son’s terrorism: “Never / apologize for being his mother. Keep / his photos on the mantel, his boyhood / room the same.” In “Before the Bridal Shop,” a poem exploring social constructs of marriage and gender, the speaker reflects, while studying a mannequin through a window, “Is this—arm fused to shoulder, eye hardened / to a single vanishing point—what it means / to be a wife?”

In a culture where “war” is sensationalized for mass consumption and thrill, the poem “In Jordan’s Northernmost Province” specifically portrays its less glamorous aspects. We follow, from a bird’s-eye view, the dangerous work of, as the epigraph reads, “the Middle East’s first all-female demining team.” The poem shows these women—“explosive experts” themselves—and the endless, painstaking clean-up which takes place after conflict and war as they scour, like archeologists, the bomb-infested ground, “hovering above a mapwork of metalwork, brushing / dust from cluster bombs like ash from flatbread.” Hauntingly, the poem concludes with this lasting image of a mother “downed / among the silent grasses, as if unclasping a barb / from her stocking, or bending to sweep back / the wild herbs clutched at her jilbab’s hem.” When considering “war,” we might think, through Lessley’s gifted work with detail, image—abound throughout this collection—of this one mother, huddled and focused, trying to reclaim the ground from war’s leftover instruments.

Hugh Martin is a veteran of the Iraq War and the author of In Country (BOA Editions, 2018) and The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions, 2013). He's currently completing a PhD at Ohio University.