Solmaz Sharif has published poetry in theNew Republic and Poetry, and has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.
“I think analysis means to separate elements in order to reframe, even penetrate, apparent meaning. So here (Look), a poet’s book takes on a military book in order to understand or reflect war—which is impossible because war is the shattering of home and love in a state of absurdity, thinly veiled by a new vocabulary to hide monstrosity. Solmaz Sharif’s Look is something great. She throws us a brilliant, even perfect, book of poems sadly central to the nightmare of today.”
“Solmaz Sharif’s beautiful and important poems patrol the boundaries and limits of language. They show how words can demean experience and also lift it up. These are political poems that never lose sight of the personal, simply because they insist that the truth of one is inseparable from the reality of the other. I can’t remember a more distinguished debut.”
“This debut from Solmaz Sharif, a poet of Iranian descent, offers another kind of take on the most pressing issues of our moment: war in the Middle East, the war on terror, the devastation ravaged upon families in the name of freedom. Sharif has a vast poet's toolkit.”
Solmaz Sharif’s debut collection of poems, Look (Graywolf Press 2016), embodies the imperative mood. For the United States Department of Defense, the title word also refers to a timespan “during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence” in mine warfare. The corrective Sharif applies to this word in her opening poem is the book’s central line. “Let it matter what we call a thing,” she writes. “Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.”
In the work that follows, Sharif works to rehabilitate terms used by the United States government in reference to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Daily I sit/ with the language/ they’ve made/ of our language,” she writes. Words retrieved from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms—neutralize, lay, patient, permanent echo, dormant, penetration aids—are writ large, all caps, so their double meanings can’t be missed.
There is so much here that compels—indelible details (“DAMAGE AREA/ does not include night sweats/ or retching at the smell of barbeque”), formal variety (the halting rhythms of state-censored letters; a partial list of military operations, i.e. CAVE DWELLERS, RAMADAN ROUNDUP, ARMY SANTA), and the poet’s courage to stand and aim squarely at such a high-value target. What makes the book most memorable to me is the clarity and shape of its argument. Sharif draws our eye to the tools of propaganda and swiftly flips them, illuminating their underpinnings, their casualties. Again and again, we encounter stark contrasts: estrangement and intimacy, vulnerability and power, gravity and humor, delicacy and force. These are not simple poems, but their mechanisms work simply: here are some words you’ve heard kicked around on TV, and here is who feels the effects of that kicking when the cameras cut away. Here is my baba holding up his pants at a security checkpoint, here are thimbles traced with sweat. Here is the fallout radius of weaponized language—it extends past the ground meat of ruined bodies to spare change that jumps at the slam of a door.
It may take some time to acclimate to Sharif’s dexterity, the layered voices. Throughout Look she samples (among others) the boastful voice of the U.S. military, detainees, an uncle slain in the Iran-Iraq war and dispassionate onlookers. There is noise and discomfort at seeing words in all caps invading poetry, which tends to be a domain of reflection and intimacy. A poem I have long been obsessed with, Frank Bidart’s epic 30-page “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” came to mind the first time I read Sharif’s title poem. Bidart’s Nijinsky also shouts on the page. Outwardly, there isn’t much yelling in poetry, but a deeper relationship between the two works can be seen here as well. In Sharif’s “Desired Appreciation,” a conversation with a psychiatrist reveals that the speaker feels like she must muzzle herself, that she feels dangerous, feels like a threat. In “Nijinsky,” the protagonist’s mind is poisoned by his proximity and relationship to World War I. Nijinsky wrestles with the question of whether he is insane or evil, and resolves it through his ultimate and final performance: he will dance the story of the war and in doing so “become the Body through which / the War has passed.” This same quote from “Nijinsky” opens Sharif’s last section, a clear signal from the poet: I live inside this war. Look at me, twisting from its paradoxes.
The length of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq habituated so many passionate dissenters into a kind of resignation, the slinking posture of but-what-can-we-do. But Sharif’s collection activates the role of observer by stunning back into awareness the wounds that still suppurate, lighting the holes cut from language and their respective tears in American thinking. We can look, look differently, persist in looking—that’s a thing we can do.