NEA Literature Fellowships

Shara Lessley

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(2015 - Poetry)

"In Jordan's Northernmost Province"

for the Middle East's first all-female de-mining crew

Women go down on their knees
hovering above a map-work of metalwork, brushing
dust from cluster bombs like ash from flatbread.
Delicate metal-filled bomblets glisten, scaring off
the crows. In fields where men once braided their hair,
a wife trades her niqab for body armor
and goggles, sifting the topmost soil
from behind her rake. She knows the mines
never sleep. She knows better to fear
the snakes, scorpions, heat,
her brother's pasture where running
water dislocates the dragon's teeth, toy-like
mines disguising themselves as butterflies
and yams. Shepherds herd their sheep
in restricted fields; their daughters more afraid
of sniffing dogs than the cross-shaped pressure
plates lying in wait. Today begins
where yesterday ends: brushes, detectors,
mallets and stakes prodding twenty square meters
grain by grain, searching for wires
attached at the pull switch. And the ragged
finch perched on the fencepost,
does it prophesy something
among the fruit trees—a thimble-
sized device, perhaps, its firing pin needling
a young boy's eyes? Who knows
what the ordinary arbor holds. Hundreds of
underground cages ready to unloose the clay-
more birds in air, their blackened gullets canting
for the boy's mother, now 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.  

(Originally published in Crazyhorse)

Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale (New Issues, 2012). A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, Shara's awards include the Mary Wood Fellowship from Washington College, an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, an Olive B. O'Connor Fellowship from Colgate University, the Reginald S. Tickner Fellowship from the Gilman School, and a "Discovery"/The Nation prize. Shara's poems have appeared in Plougshares, The Cincinnati Review, New England Review, 32 Poems, The Missouri Review, and The Colorado Review, among others. She lives with her husband and two children in Northern Virginia.

Photo by Lisa Beth Anderson

Author's Statement

I've never been someone who can write in public (coffee shops, libraries, etc.) and do my best work in the quietest of rooms. This award gives me what I need most—the silence, privacy, and uninterrupted hours to continue drafting and revising my current manuscript. Set primarily in the U.S. and Amman, Jordan (where I lived from 2010 through 2013), the collection aims to destabilize the darker fears and prejudices associated with the Middle East. My hope is that the poems in this book will speak individually, as well as to each other—"The Clinic Bomber's Mother" to "The Accused Terrorist's Wife," for example—in order to spark a larger dialogue about notions of terrorism, marriage, culture, country, motherhood, and home.

From a practical stance, I now have the means to afford a few hours of weekly childcare and to replace a laptop. Equally important to me, however, is the endorsement of this new work. Because I drafted the majority of this project overseas, to know that a jury of esteemed poets and readers finds something engaging in the poems is deeply affirming. I'm beyond grateful for the gifts of financial and artistic support. The award couldn't have come at a better time.