“Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties: / All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless: / American and diplomatic.” It’s hard not to hear underpinning this passage, which opens the poem “Desired Appreciation,” the suggestion that for something to be accepted as American it must go along with the current, must uphold the status quo—the exact opposite of how art functions, which is by disruption. And lest there be any misunderstanding, I’ll clarify—Solmaz Sharif’s Look is a book that disrupts, fervently and effectively. The poems within are allergic to complacency and linguistic hypnosis; they constantly reach, inquire, prod, and wonder—sometimes with force—and refuse to allow the reader to be lulled into the sense that everything is okay in the world.
The first words of Look make the author’s intents known in no uncertain terms: “It matters what you call a thing.” Unflinching is a term overused when describing writers, particularly poets, but if there’s a book deserving of this phrase, it’s Look; Solmaz Sharif is insistent that the reader understand that there is something awry, something lurking below the surface level of today’s media and discourse, and she’s going after it without hesitation.
The poems in Look are interested in challenging the way we hear about and consider war by dismantling the language used when describing or reporting on it. Formally, the poems are concerned with euphemistic language; thematically, they target large-scale complacency with war. When these two tie together is where the book derives its tension and strength:
Daily I sit
with the language
of our language
the CAPABILITY of LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS
You are what is referred to as
(from “Personal Effects”)
Look emphatically spotlights the sterile, modular language that is omnipresent in 21st-century America’s conversations around war and violence. It argues that such language serves to dehumanize victims in order to make such atrocities appear more palatable, breaking down such persons into disparate, interchangeable statistics or part of a monolithic “other,” until the receiver of this language is comfortable thinking of humans in terms of numbers and costs, losing sight of the individuality and humanity behind every figure. Soon following the passage quoted above, Sharif defines a term derivative of such language by its callous, real-world effects:
In EXECUTION PLANNING, they weighed
the losses, the SUSTAINABILITY
for X number,
they budgeted for the phone call
to your mother and weighed that
against the amount saved in rations
The words in small caps are taken from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms—these terms are present throughout much of the book, with at least one appearing in probably two-thirds of the collection’s individual poems, and are always conspicuous in their particular formatting. The ubiquity of these euphemisms in the book echo their pervasiveness in our language, even worming their way into the poems’ speaker occasionally:
I’ve started to say such
senseless things: “I know
where he is coming from”
and “I’m just doing my job.”
(from “Free Mail”)
In these poems, euphemism is used as a formal device to invite multiple readings or perspectives of a word or phrase, but on a larger scale (something especially apparent after stretches of Look decked with lots of small caps) they serve to consciously flag word choice used as a means to soften, sterilize, and create distance between how we describe something and the truth of that thing itself. It’s this distance created that allows room for the powerful to control the stories of everyone they want (“distance / is a funny drug and used to make me a distressed person” – from “Deception Story”). It’s what supports narratives that aim to justify what would, in the light of day, be seen as more clearly abhorrent and objectionable.
At multiple points in the book the speaker is questioned about their ability to speak about the war (“How can she write that? / She doesn’t know” in response to lines about her uncle’s death as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war); Sharif counters that war touches us all, though certainly some more than others, and one needn’t see the explosions with their own eyes to have their world impacted, to be able to speak about it.
According to most
definitions, I have never
been at war.
According to mine,
most of my life
(from “Personal Effects”)
Indeed, the same conflict that took the life of that uncle—her Amoo—is the same her parents fled the country from shortly before her birth, and thus war has irrevocably changed her life before she even entered the world; underlying the collection is the assertion that, in a world shaped by centuries upon centuries of war, could that not be true of any of us? Look suggests that the catalyst of war has altered lives both in seismic and subtle ways, but it also points to a particularly poignant effect of war felt here in today’s United States: Islamophobia, which hit a disturbing fever pitch in the months before the book’s publication, during which presidential candidates called for banning the entry of Muslims into the US or creating a “patrol” of Muslim neighborhoods.
This xenophobia is depicted in Look through its direct effects on the speaker’s life and experiences (“I say Hello NSA when I place a call,” the speaker says in “Drone”), but the readers also see the conflict internalized as a result of having one’s identity prescribed, not just once, but twice, and in opposing directions: the Islamophobes in the US telling her she doesn’t belong here, and the voices claiming she has no claim to speak of things that transpired in her family’s home overseas. This mental push and pull finds expression not only in the content but the very form of the collection’s poems.
Formally, the poems in Look defy expectation, and in some cases easy categorization—indeed, it appears that a static and predictable form might be seen as a form of creative oppression (“What is fascism? / a student asked me … The sonnet, / I said” – from “Force Visibility”). The poems reflect and channel the energy of a speaker that is agitated, uncomfortable with the way the world is shaped around her, and is actively attempting to enact change. They shift between thin, enjambed columns and prose; they take the shape of definitions or short encyclopedia articles; some have lines that stretch or alternate between the page’s left and right margins, that braid narratives; others make ample use of white space, lists, indentations, even erasure. The latter is inferred in “Reaching Guantánamo,” which takes the form of a number of letters sent by a loved one to a detainee in the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, which are heavily redacted. The content of the letters are hollowed out, and the reader can only see the edges from which something was taken:
said I need to
my tongue. It’s getting sharp.
I told him to _________his own
business, to _____his own
wife. He didn’t .
If he wasn’t my
I would never
again. Sometimes, I write you
letters I don’t send. I don’t mean
to cause alarm. I just want the ones
you open to
like a hill of poppies.
In these letters the sender too feels to be emptying; the removal of language, the control over it as it passes between sender and receiver is a kind of violence—the collection regularly asserts this in a number of ways, but here the effect is that the force exerted on the language erases both a person and a relationship.
Look urges us not to divert our gaze from the atrocities simultaneous with our lives, not to be distracted or misled or lulled by the language war is wrapped in, but to take that step toward actually noticing and understanding what is happening, which requires—as the book’s title plainly asserts—that we look. Look, as opposed to passively seeing what is presented: actively, consciously trying to locate the truth, ugly as it is important, and not accepting the given narratives and euphemisms at face value.
The poems in Look do not shy away from depicting war and its emotional, physical, and psychic toll on humanity, even as it demonstrates how language is manipulated to blunt an impact or inure us to what should feel horrifying in society today. The collection’s title itself is taken from another of those euphemisms—defined as the “period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence”—but it is also a directive against the currents promoting the normalcy of war. Somewhere between a plea and a command, these poems urge us not to simply see, but to look, because this is not something happening in a world unrelated to ours: “America, ignore the window and look at your lap: / even your dinner napkins are on fire.” (“Mess Hall”) If we ignore the violence of our times because it’s easy to look away, or to believe it unavoidable, it’s on us, too:
He was moved like that
across a minefield—
moved by a hand we cannot see,
a hand that is all our hands combined.
(from “Personal Effects”)