Shara Lessley: Two-Headed Nightingale
Christian Anton Gerard
- by Shara Lessley
One of the central concerns pervading Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry is the idea of vital metaphor, that poetic aspect that makes the serious poet’s work different from amateurs, or those searching for personal vainglory. For Shelley, vital metaphor leads to the truest form of expression, the expression allowing a poet to move past him/herself and into participation with “the one, the infinite, the eternal.” Shelley is, of course, talking about the collective imagination of poetry through the ages that contributes to the ongoing understanding of ourselves as human.
In our contemporary moment when so many poets seem focused on the individual poem, Shara Lessley’s Two-Headed Nightingale reminds is there is a greater cause for poetry. Lessley’s deftly crafted lines lead to poems that are greater than the sum of their lines, and a collection of poems exhibiting an investigative perception of the world fueled by an emotional weight and empathy for the interior’s interaction with the exterior that allows us to see these poems’ speaker, as well as ourselves, as part of something greater than the idea of individual.
Emily Dickinson’s line “split the lark–and you’ll find the music–” is the first section’s epigraph, and the phrase works with the first poem “Fallen Starling” to introduce the avian metaphors at work throughout the collection. In these opening moments, Lessley labors to identify the ideal freedom associated with the ability to fly and the lament we share at the idea of a caged bird, or the fallen bird whose lost flight is it’s lost glory. But it’s also in these opening moments that Lessley identifies these ideals as the basis for an investigation into her interior (and past) from which her poems will continually work out.
“Driven to land like light / it is unmade–or rather, / made into something other,” Lessley begins “Fallen Starling,” and I would say that here in these first lines we’re also engaging the vital metaphor that will dominate the rest of the book: the idea of being made into something other. Lessley’s ominous opening moments feel at first to be exterior observations, but as the first section moves into the second we quickly understand this is a poet engaged in creating a universal through the particular. Lessley’s undertaking, we soon learn, is like the fallen starling appearing in the first poem that, “Unburdened, / the bird darts up its one good eye / to study its own undoing.” Two-Headed Nightingale begins in a posture of observation that turns its lens on the poet’s interior as poem after poem we see the past’s burden lift, giving way to self-recognition on the part of the speaker making unburdened empathy available to the reader.
In poems like “Captive,” Portrait Hepialus, and “Blue Mussels,” Lessley narratively illuminates her inability to save a cicada, lyrically describes the Ghost Moth (which we recognize as a metaphor for the self), and makes making a meal of Blue Mussels into “empty shells / words we’ve so often rehearsed / and worn the human out of.” These early poems exhibit nature’s seeming cruelty, or rather, the idea that nature is by nature unsympathetic to the desires of a speaker who, it seems, can only study her own undoing. It is in these early dealings with Kingdom Animalia that I’m reminded of the Dickinson epigraph, or even a Marianne Moore who in “The Fish” writes “repeated / evidence has proved that it can live / on what can not revive / its youth. The sea grows old in it.”
As the collection progresses, so do the vital metaphors by which we’re able to mark the poet’s progress through her own recuperation of her past, both genealogically and experientially. In “Two-Headed Nightingale,” the collection’s title poem, Lessley traces the performative lives of Christine and Millie McCoy, the stage name of the two conjoined sisters born into slavery and sold into a life of performance. It is from this poem on that Lessley creates, as Michael Collier notes on the book’s back cover, “the two-headed nightingale that is not so much a freak of nature as it is a paradox of the imagination.” In this case, that paradox of the imagination resides in what is uncontrollable about one’s past, versus what one can do in the past’s wake.
In sections two through four, Lessley’s speaker reveals her experiences as a broken ballerina, daughter, and sister. In “The Old Life ACT I: The Master,” Lessley demonstrates her mastery over form and subject in the short, breathless lines identifying “the master” whose “ballet’s were his– / that much was clear” and who “asked me / to stay / pressed to the wall, / his hands / roaming,” but more than revealing the master, this poem and these lines work to reveal the speaker’s doubled understanding of herself as she continues, “…still / I held, thinking move, move / move stupid girl.” The speaker’s self judgment here works doubly (as it does in many of these poems) identifying the poet’s judgment of her former self and the self present in the poem. And in the genealogical element of “Genealogical Survey across Several Counties,” for instance, Lessley writes “my inheritance is a thumbnail’s splinter; / a pocket lined with grease. I come / from a frayed line… / a thin line tacked with spotted / muumuus, cloth diapers patched and re-worn / a dozen times over…/ I come from a line wrapped / round the courthouse, from papers filed / for persons missing.” It appears in both instances, and in many of the poems populating the collection’s middle, that we’re in the midst of a poet grieving the unchangeable nature of the past, the unchangeable nature of self-nature. It is in these sections of the book that we learn we’re dealing with a poet aware of poetry’s transformative power because it is also in these middle sections that we encounter a speaker strong enough to arrive at a poem like “To My Father Two Years into Death.”
Beginning in memory, the poem quickly moves to an admission both the poem and the collection as a whole seem to have been praying for from the get-go. “At eight, I watched you chase a runaway / steer, the one that dared to outwit you, the one // branded in scars on its side,” “To May Father” begins and continues, “of course, / I wasn’t there when you finally faced it down…”But soon we’re privy to the speaker’s own agency winning the day:
But I’m left with only the image
of you: always more animal than man,
You watch yourself weep in the wet
glass of its tar-black eye, your darkened brow
cast down and defeated, your madness
broken in a chest of shattered ribs.
Father, because you are two years
and twenty-six days in the grave now,
it’s safe to admit that though most daughters
would’ve cheered for their father,
I was pulling for the steer, and like the steer
was always waiting.
“To My Father Two Years Into Death” is one of the book’s penultimate poems to my reading because it’s here that we finally sense the possibility for personal change beginning with this admission. It is also in this poem that Lessley makes overt her connection with the nature metaphors we’ve seen throughout the book, but we’re beginning to see them change. The steer with which she identifies in this poem is full of agency and life, which is a much different use of the metaphor than we witness in the collection’s early poems. I call attention to this shifting use of the book’s nature metaphor’s because the change is subtle, happening poem by poem, and it requires a discerning mind to attempt and achieve such a complicated pattern of progression throughout a collection of contemporary poetry. And finally, while the poem, like most in the collection, is specifically personal, I’m able to empathize with the speaker, and at the poem’s arrival, I too am pulling for the steer because I’m also pulling for the poet. This poem and its arrival aren’t confessional for confessional’s sake, but are confessing a truth participating in a long lineage of English poetry concerned with the creation of golden worlds, or that Aristotelian notion that a poem should be about not what is, but could and should be.
It’s fitting to note the complexity of Two-Headed Nightingale’s metaphoric shifts as instances of change in the poetic thinking and sensibilities alongside the idea that a poem should strive for what should and could be considering the collection ends with the nine page poem “Self-Portrait as (Super/Sub) Pacific.” This poem, presented in tercets, arranged in nine line sections, continues the work begun in “To My Father” by recuperating the sense of self Lessley faces losing in the collection’s opening section. This last poem, comprising all of the book’s final section, is the kind of ending I champion because Lessley has managed to tied up all of the metaphoric and personal complexities presented earlier in a formally challenging poem that embodies the power of the ocean and transfers that power to the speaker who just sixty pages before presented herself as one losing the fight against herself within, against, and as a part of the natural world. The poem begins:
In the dark undersurface of sea,
five hundred fathoms beneath,
dark as the giant squid’s indigestible beak
lodged inside the sperm
whale’s second belly, the ocean’s
sleek anatomy reveals itself:
But apart from the ocean’s anatomy revealing itself, this is also the poet revealing herself and her collection’s anatomy. Through the last seventy-four pages of poems, this poet has travelled five hundred fathoms beneath her own surface to examine her interior and the old exterior she used to assume in the collection’s opening sections. She has travelled deep into herself and in doing so has taught me to do the same. Our contemporary moment is often skeptical of the “too personal” or what we fancy to call “confessional,” but throughout this collection, and in the arrival of this last poem, we’re able to understand why such a poetic project is worth undertaking. In the poem’s (and collection’s) closing lines, Lessley writes:
…And the past rises
again before me. As I
navigate its pitched surface
daughter lover sister other
no myth I was holds true.
I am breathless here, I am empathetic, and I am emphatic. I am rejoicing in the poetic triumph I’ve just witnessed. Throughout this collection, Lessley has rearticulated what it means to investigate the interior, which has always been the grandest goal of poetry in the English tradition. She has crafted a book of poems that makes her story all of our stories and has taught us how to face ourselves in a way that extends poetry’s stewardship of the self in relation to the exterior world into the twenty-first century.