By David Nilsen
Solmaz Sharif’s debut poetry collection Look from Graywolf Press is a book that should provoke anger in its readers: anger because of the injustices the book chronicles, because of the lies spoken under the guise of defending freedom but in the service of exploitation, because of our species’ insistence on continuing to wage pointless and horrific wars. Look is a provocative document, but only insofar as dignity, equality, and peace are provocative concepts in our world today. I would worry some readers will instead be angry because they perceive any criticism of America as cause for outrage, but I somehow doubt they find time for much poetry.
Sharif is well-acquainted with war and its consequences, though–as she is careful to explain–she has never fought. Some of her writing about war has been challenged on the grounds she has never been directly involved, but what does that mean, to be involved in a war? She counters this challenge by pointing out how ridiculous it is to assert that the horrors of war are only experienced on the front lines. The reverberations of war’s violence can be felt far from the trenches. Sharif’s mother’s block in Iran was leveled by bombs; her beloved uncle died in combat in a war he didn’t want to fight in; a dear friend was kept in a detention center on U.S. soil on very dubious grounds. Sharif herself is always keenly aware of her adopted nation’s suspicion of her just for being Iranian. She is constantly on the social witness stand to establish she is American enough, grateful enough to be here. In Look, she refuses to play the part of the good little Middle Easterner living in America.
Sharif uses a terribly clever and chilling device to pick apart the hypocrisies of the American supremacy myth and the horrors of the wars waged in its service. Throughout the book, she uses terms pulled from United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. These terms are words and phrases that, when used in a military context, have meanings wholly distinct from their general usage. Sharif mines this repository of coded language and euphemisms for violence to pepper her lyrics with the language of her oppressors, creating poignant and damning combinations. Set as they are in small caps, we know these terms when we see them, though they are woven so craftily into the text we would be clueless to most of them if they were not designated so. The book’s title, Look, is a term with a very specific meaning in the military dictionary: “In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive to an influence.” Sharif uses the word repeatedly in its common usage as an imperative. Many of these terms are held in tension between their esoteric military usage and the meanings they hold for the rest of the population.
In some poems–“Special Events for Homeland Security,” for example–Sharif uses this device to caustically flaunt the celebratory attitude many take toward the military. She sexualizes the language of a war machine to expose the dull egoism and aggression of that machine. It begins:
Leave your DOLLY at home–this is no INNOCENT PASSAGE. Ladies, bring your KILL BOX. Boys, your HUNG WEAPON.
These capitalized words, when housed in the structure Sharif creates for them here, sound like the made up words of sweaty middle school boys playing with walkie talkies, rather than the military minds of the most dominant empire the world has ever seen. The poem amps up from there, and concludes:
Please come with a safe PASSWORD and a NICKNAME, we’ll provide the PENETRATION AIDS and RESTRAINTS. Guaranteed to make your SPREADER BAR SWELL.
At times, the military terms themselves provide the own most profound commentary. One particular poem titled “Perception Management: an abridged list of operations” is nothing more than a list of code names for military maneuvers, calling to mind a poem from Katie Ford’s stunning 2014 collection Blood Lyrics in which she crafted a poem from names given to various drones and missiles. With no language around them, the names of these military offensives pop out as absurd, grotesque, unending: “PATRIOT STRIKE • QUICK STRIKE • RESTORING RIGHTS • CONSTITUTION HAMMER • INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION”
Look is far from an impersonal political salvo, however. Sharif has been deeply and irreparably impacted by war and injustice, and she is deft at modulating her voice in this collection, scaling between broad, abstract critique and deeply intimate reflection. In a poem in which she is mourning not only her own uncle who died in combat, but all the young people whose lives have been forfeited to war, she observes:
I am older than you’ll ever be
and I keep going in that direction
In a series of erasure poems written to a fictional lover detained in Guantánamo, we are shown the intimacy between someone who has been disappeared and the partner who refuses to let them disappear for good. Much of the texted is erased, leaving fragments and images around blanks we must fill in with our own experiences of intimacy, drawing us into the work of the poem and wrapping us in empathy for the writer of these desperate letters.
Love, are you well? Do they __________you?
I worry so much. Lately, my hair____________, even
my skin_______________. The doctors tell me it’s__________.
How Sharif has maintained a heart open to love and hurt in the face of the violence that has affected her family and the hatred directed toward her and those she loves, I cannot say, beyond the apparent truth the human spirit is resilient after all. In a poem that details a seemingly endless list of indignities and injustices, Sharif is at points grimly mischievous (“I say Hello NSA when I place a call”), but mostly she is just wounded and trying to breathe, to believe. The collection ends with these devastating lines:
we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter
I am singing to her still
Look is available now at GPL.