OBITUARY: Maine poet Lee Sharkey

  • October 29, 2020

Maine poet, activist and mentor Lee Sharkey dies at age 75

She published many books of poetry and was an influential editor and mentor.

By Bob Keyes / Portland Press Herald 

Lee Sharkey, a poet and peace activist with an empathetic soul, who mentored writers in Maine and around the world, died Sunday from pancreatic cancer. She was 75.

Sharkey, who lived in Portland after spending many years in central Maine, had wide influence across the literary community as co-founder of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, co-editor of the influential Maine-based Beloit Poetry Journal and educator at the University of Maine at Farmington, where among other things she founded the Women’s Studies Program. She taught poetry to adults with mental distresses and peace to anyone willing to embrace it, and stood with Women in Black demonstrators at Farmington and Portland in protest of the Iraq invasion.

In 1974, she bought a 100-year-old press, learned how to use it and produced her first chapbook the next year. She kept writing until the end, completing a final volume of poems, “I Will Not Name It Except to Say,” in the last months of her life. Tupelo Press will publish the book in the spring. In between, she wrote a half-dozen other books of poems and several chapbooks and won numerous writing prizes.

Her death, which was announced on her personal Facebook page on Tuesday, shocked many of her friends, who had not known she was ill. She was, said her friend and fellow poet, Betsy Sholl, “an incredible soul” – courageous, empathetic and smart. Sharkey and Sholl shared not only poetry, but the experience of having the men they love diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Sholl’s husband, Doug, died in July. Sharkey’s husband, Al, survives her.

“I can picture Lee in that support group for care givers, being attentive to each person, feeling the sorrow and some times humor of each person,” Sholl wrote in an email. “She could also address the most difficult aspects of that disease. Her empathy was palpable. I am sure that was evident to her students as well. Lee was fiercely committed to justice, to serving others, especially those on the edges of society. She was courageous persevering through her own health issues. As a poet she grew in wisdom and depth with each book. She found ways in her poems to create a shared humanity, to discuss the darkness, the suffering of others, but also to suggest a larger embrace, a greater spirit of generosity among us.”

In 2017, Sharkey won the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize in Dublin, Ireland, for “Letter to Al,” a poem about her husband and the depth of their love. The prize included an award of 10,000 euros, or a little more than $10,000.

“It is enough some hours simply to be together, within our walls among our familiar objects – refrigerator, toaster, pencil, stepladder, jacket, glove – or walking hand in hand,” she wrote. “Some hours it seems perfected, the cycle of passion and caring, striving and settling, everything come down to love. The marvel of devotion, the osmotic comfort of skin on skin. We quiet old lovers who have no need to speak.”

Lee Sharkey and Al Bersbach at their home in Portland in 2017, the year she won the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, one of the world’s most sought-after prizes for a single unpublished poem, for “Letter to Al,” a poem she wrote about her husband having Alzheimer’s disease. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine poet laureate Stuart Kestenbaum heard Sharkey read “Letter to Al” on the radio, and it was an arresting experience. “It’s such a beautiful poem, loving and direct at the same time,” he said. “She was such an intense presence and a great advocate for poetry and was very brave in the way she wrote and the things she wrote.”

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, said Sharkey’s death “represents a real big loss for Maine and for the country. It’s a big legacy. She had a wide, wide reach. We owe our existence as an organization to her and a small handful of other people.”

At UMaine Farmington, she was known as a teacher with unparalleled gifts, said her longtime colleague, Patricia O’Donnell, professor emeritus of creative writing. “Teaching was a calling for her, as important to her as her poetry or her work for social justice,” O’Donnell wrote in an email. “Lee is remembered among colleagues for her great kindness. I will always think of the way she focused so entirely on the person she was talking with, as if she were listening to what they were saying with her whole self, taking in and giving back. Her work for social justice was an extension of her kindness, of her sense of responsibility to other people.”

Eric C. Brown, provost and vice president for academic affairs, issued a statement praising Sharkey as “a brilliant and devoted teacher of writing and a passionate advocate for poetry, and the entire UMF community mourns her loss. During her tenure here, she taught writing seminars, co-edited the Beloit Poetry Journal, gave away beautiful letterpress broadsides, and worked individually with a number of aspiring writers. … She left a significant legacy at UMF and made many lasting friends, and we are very sorry to hear of her passing.”

A former student and intern at the Beloit Poetry Journal, poet Jacques J. Rancourt, said Sharkey was soft-spoken and sage-like, and a sharp editor who always exhibited kindness and compassion for other writers. She treated a poem postmarked from a prison with the same care as a poem submitted by an award-winning poet, he said. “She mothered me through a particularly dark time in my life, as I know she did for many others, and throughout our 12-year friendship after my internship she sent emails every few months to check in on me, to hear what I’ve been working on, and to make sure I was still writing poems,” he said.

Rachel Contreni Flynn, co-editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal, said members of the Beloit community are keenly grieving their loss. “But we’re also entirely grateful for the gifts that Lee Sharkey gave to each of us personally and to the journal she led for decades. Lee’s incomparable poetic ear, eye, and heart helped make the BPJ what it is today and helped so many in the poetry world sustain the courage to keep writing, keep connecting,” Flynn said in a statement also signed by the journal’s co-editor Kirun Kapur.

Agnes Bushell, a founder of Littoral Books, was among those who organized the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance with Sharkey in 1975. They were like-minded women with common interests, and worked with a small group to form the organization to support writers across Maine. They lost regular contact when Sharkey moved upstate, and reunited in 2015 when former MWPA executive director Joshua Bodwell honored them on the organization’s 40th anniversary. By then, Sharkey had moved back to Portland and reconnected with Bushell. She contributed a poem to “Balancing Act 2,” an anthology of poems by 50 Maine women published in 2018 when Littoral Books relaunched its press.

“Younger poets adore her,” Bushell said. “She is an icon and an amazing poet and an important figure in the history of Maine poetry.”


Letter To Al
By Lee Sharkey

It was all sound. The loons. My lunatic heart. The warblers’ variations.
It was the loon night leading me to damage, a reluctant knowledge
that to do for you is to do to you. Wild, erratic, the loon
sings out its night devotions, Monk of the bird kingdom,
trilling the high note past its measure till the heart’s thrilled open.
Is it fog you wander when you stare out of the house of yourself,
is a you small and distant gathering itself for your return - a penny
for your thoughts, but you do not speak them. Only when you draw your bow
across the cello strings do I hear the one who made my fierce heart
tremble. It was pure sound answering pure sound rising and subsiding
on a flood of memory and it had the power to unlock my grief.
Were there a hiding place in poems I would slip you into it; you could cling
to my back or a fiddler’s trousers, as Chagall wrote of his father, who worked
loading barrels of herring and died crushed by a car. Barrels of grief.
Do not forsake me. Who can know what is written on his back.

I return to the nights in Russia when we stripped off sweaters and shirts,
long johns and underthings, and dived for the narrow bed. A deep cold
had crystalized the city, trees of crystal, palaces of crystal sparkling
where families paraded on winter evenings in high fur hats
and long fur coats and boots made of caribou on sidewalks
layered with snow. Beneath thin covers we shivered as we stole
the fire of sex. This was the kingdom you carried me off to,
where everyone recited Pushkin and bested each other’s tales
of the gulag, the breath of the great bear of hunger on their lips.
I lay on the floor teaching my throat the sounds of a new language;
I called out for chalk and they gave me honey; you struggled to teach
in a language you learned in high school, the Cold War piquing
your interest, you with the gift of tongues. Do you have potatoes?
our colleagues repeated, concerned for the strangers recently arrived
in the closed zone, knowing nothing, but eager and alert.

To live a routine of catastrophe. Each day radically undetermined.
Will tomorrow be Sunday or Tuesday? Will the heart hold for one more hour?
Each day undermined. Darkly mirrored in the monitor.
Will I drop to the floor in the cereal aisle? Will you forget your pin?
The dish lies broken. This wasn’t what we anticipated.
The thing without a name goes with us. Labouring and uncertain.
Death’s imbecile cousin. Volatile. Childlike and self-absorbed.
Delights in your confusion. Will not be ignored. Sprawls in the bed
with its seductions. Swipes your keys and identification.|
What’s the game plan? Take each day as it metastasizes,
Lord, your humble servant, Shekhinah of the midnight hour.
In whose hands we place ourselves in medicated dreaming,
the voices calling each other’s names: Wake! Emergency!
I fumbling to you. You fumbling to me. What can I do?Just stay
with me. Till the end of shadows. Till the end of end.

It’s the if under every utterance. It’s the utterance over every if.
It’s the memory arriving of my mother in a slatted lawn chair,
eyes closed (I have closed them), smelling the salted sea grass,
a black and white memory I am painting red. Tonight she will leave
her diaphragm in the drawer. Don’t tell my father. I want to be.
To be out in it, making memories of my mother, head thrown back,
letting the breeze touch her. She and I painting the lawn chair red.
To be about it. Desire, the little engine that keeps on pulling,
in every box car a generation re-membering its lost stories
over the clatter of the rails. To make, to shape it. To see every word
flown from the mouth as a catbird’s feather loosed in wind,
tipping the scales of a future. As in: my father has throttled his words
once too often and lost the power to speak. He has brought
the house down around him and sits staring from the rubble.
I write this feather to touch him not to impeach.

It is enough some hours simply to be together, within our walls
among our familiar objects - refrigerator, toaster, pencil, stepladder,
jacket, glove - or walking hand in hand. We rest when we’re tired.
We eat when we’re hungry. The locusts, the frogs, the death of the firstborn -
we have escaped them. Against us, not a dog shall move his tongue.
Some hours it seems perfected, the cycle of passion and caring,
striving and settling, everything come down to love. The marvel
of devotion, the osmotic comfort of skin on skin. We quiet
old lovers who have no need to speak. Outside, the plagues continue:
the pestilence, the grievous hail, the stinking fish, extinctions.
Pharaoh doubles down on his intransigence. But our ambitions
have grown modest. I stop for a flower’s deliquescence, recite
the sequence: crocus, daffodil, tulip, peony, rose.
You fill your pillbox, watch Space X rockets land on water.
A hand held, a kiss soft on the lips - there is no future to speak of.


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