(Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2018)
“The wind doesn’t choose what it moves / as it moves it: warm rain turning / dust to mud. The wind doesn’t choose” writes Shara Lessley in The Explosive Expert’s Wife, her intimate observation of families, cultures, and human behaviors. The appealing words quoted above describe how the wind in spring creates a tumultuous act that displays the uncertainty of events that occur. Shara Lessley lived in Jordan from 2010 to 2013, and she wrote this book to disrupt the worries and prejudices that follow Middle Eastern countries. While reading the book, I was able to connect it with my own experience during my visit to Jordan. My journey to Jordan was only a quick stop, but nevertheless, I was able to interact with Jordanians in the stores and on the streets to see their true kindness and how they are misunderstood. They’re living circumstances are not easy, which is clearly seen when visiting the country. Lessely points out that despite there being wars and conflicts, it occurs all around the world and not only in the Middle East. It’s interesting to see the perception an outsider looking in retrieves. I never put much thought into how people in Jordan live their lives compared those in America. Even though they have challenges, they have made extensive progress, for instance, women in the work force. In Lessley’s first poem, “In Jordan’s Northernmost Province,” she writes,
Women go down on their knees
hovering above a mapwork of metalwork, brushing
dust from cluster bombs like ash from flatbread.
Lessley uses a simile to compare the work that women are doing now to what they used to do: bread making to bomb cleaning. She starts the book off with this poem, which seems like a perfect jolt since women in the Middle East are seen as not being able to join activities that are outside the home. Lessley hits us with the capabilities of these women and what they are now allowed to take part in, showing them exchange their niqab for goggles and armor. It’s a new day for these women who are trying to protect their children and community from the horror of crossing the field with either shepherds and sheep or children playing. The irony of this poem is that, in a way, they are being oppressed because the Jordanians are not able to walk this board, “the dragon’s teeth,” between Jordan and Syria. The juxtaposition seen in the piece reveals that the women are the ones who disarm these dangerous explosives to protect their people; however, women are not often seen at the forefront of danger. She continues to attest to the feeling of change:
plates lying in wait. Today begins
where yesterday ends: brushes, detectors,
mallets, and stakes prodding twenty square meters
grain by grain, searching for vines
attached at the pull switch.
Expanding her skill to write in intense description and explanation, Lessley delves into the lives of Jordanian women in a society that has retractions and norms that are hard to break. Her poems are serious, which is reflected through the punchy line breaks. Through her poetry, I was not only able to see what the lives of Jordanians look like, but I was able to understand the process of transformations. These minefields would be something their husbands, sons, or grandsons would be attending to. These women are cleaning these mines that are, in a way, oppressing them.
Elsewhere in The Explosive Expert’s Wife, it’s easy to see the constant conflicts that have occurred and are still occurring around the world. In “Strawberries,” Lessley goes back to 1995 when more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims were massacred, cut up, and buried in mass graves. The former Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, was sent to The Hague for a trial fourteen years after the genocide. After the struggle of these women having to accept the idea of their grandfathers, fathers, sons, nephew, and/or grandsons being dead, they never received closure. All they received were pieces of bodies of their husbands or sons. Some received nothing. In addition, the man responsible for this horrific act was not yet punished.
They’ve caught the general
in hiding sixteen years who
slaughtered Muslim boys
in knee-high grass, hands
bound behind their backs
Lessley sheds light on this tragic event because of the cruelty that this country was under for an extensive amount of time. “Two continents away, / My own family’s dying out: / Uncles and cousins I haven’t seen / In years, and likely won’t again.” These boys and men were taken away which in turn decreased the male, female population, which lowered reproduction and the amount of families that were growing. Their husbands and sons will never return to them. Women in Bosnia will never fully recover from the lack of justice that they faced.
Although the majority of Lessley’s poems are about the political issues and war in Jordan, she includes poems that refer to other countries that are experiencing analogous situations. She moves on to talking about the Boston Marathon Bombing that took place in 2013. Her poem, “Vertigo: Boston / The Middle East,” covers the startling event:
snow and snow: (a trimester to go): and sleet,
a half block to Boylston: I fall (I fall
hard) crossing the street: strangers
help me to my feet: I’m fine, I’m fine:
my ungloved hand: snow and snow:
begins to bleed: my hip
The imagery is brought out in vivid descriptions, acts, and emotions. These lines demonstrate the shocked reaction of a pregnant bystander and what ran through her head during this alarming time: her unborn child that might die even before he/she had a chance of survival. Lessley continues her train of tricks to reveal the extensive horrors that keep appearing around the world. War is neither racist nor sexist; therefore, the world will continue to behave in such acts of violence without the excuses of where they are from, what race they are, and what sex they are. Through Lessley’s poems, it’s easy to recognize and to understand how different the Middle East is in comparison to what media onlookers catch. The work and effort that Jordanians put fourth is just like the people of any other country, hard working. Shara Lessley’s poems do a sensational job of discovering the images that depict the realistic and the true behavior and culture of people in the Middle East, along with the conflict that develops throughout the world.
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Aminah Abutayeb is an Adjunct Professor at William Paterson University. She recently graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University where she obtained her MFA in Poetry. She is a poetry reader at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories and Common Ground Review.