Attuning Tension: Calendars of Fire by Lee Sharkey

Posted Wednesday, August 21, 2013 in Culture

Attuning Tension: Calendars of Fire by Lee Sharkey

reviewed by Dana Wilde

 “Calendars of Fire: Poems” by Lee Sharkey; Tupelo Press, North Adams, Mass., 2013; 74 pages, trade paperback, $16.95.

"Calendars of Fire," Lee Sharkey's most recent collection of poems, provides a good look at how language unfolds for her from the internal processes that are uncompromisingly trying to make sense out of human suffering.

The book consists of narratives and lyrics, but not conventional story lines or single-pointed "meditation," as it used to be called. Instead, the poems frame -- rather than arrange -- verbal syntheses of the stream of perceptions and emotions that are passing uninterruptedly in and out of consciousness. Not just passing perceptions -- such as a butterfly "with half of its wing shorn off" or the realization that, for example, people in faraway places are suffering horribly -- but also the moral experiences connected to the pain perceived.

In the incoming stream are shadows that turn out to be injustice ("Knives are sharpened. Women go walking among them"); glints of joy in nature ("You may love a single star in an upper sash"); darknesses of emotional and physical torture ("It is possible to hear the minutest sounds coming from the interrogation chamber"); vibratory responses to music ("the rhythm of thought rocking").

In the subtextual narratives we detect Balkan and Middle Eastern characters trapped in violent political conditions ("Snipers targeted the bridge. … / Who stayed? Kasim and Amra, Zlatko, Silly Kika") and disgendered personalities struggling with both their powers and their alienations, as in the six-part series "Tiresias at Last" on the mythic seer who lived part of life as a man and part as a woman. In the poem "Atonement":


The women and the man who acts like a woman have come where this was done

They mean to name it. Mean to atone

To attune a tension

To ask forgiveness of the survivors who visit death today.


The poet is throughout the collection hyperaware of the music of these verbal syntheses: "Oud, viola, cello, violin / When the new day comes we will write it in cursive" concludes the title poem; and in "The voice is the last we forget to remember":  "What remains is music, mantric, cricket-like, disarming."

Each poem is an attunement of physical, mental, moral and, indeed, spiritual perceptions of politics, genders, natural beauties, toils, hungers, wretchedness, that have been recognized, assembled, disassembled and framed in language as evocations of all manner of empathy, indignation, moral outrage, and love.

It's a poetry of intensive paying attention to what's coming in, what's going out and what it sounds like: "I am the witness who forgets the prayer and where it was made but swears, there was a prayer there, there is a prayer."

Lee Sharkey is retired assistant professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Maine at Farmington, co-editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal and a member of the Women in Black group in Farmington, Maine. Her previous books include "To A Vanished World," "Farmwife" and "A Darker, Sweeter String" (also available on CD from Vox Audio, "Calendars of Fire" is available from Tupelo Press


Dana Wilde’s collection of essays, "The Other End of the Driveway," is available from For reviews of Maine poetry and a new poem from Maine each week, visit A Parallel Uni-Verse,

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