Each time the question invariably makes sense. I’m at a workshop or taking part in a panel discussion or a class, and someone asks about my work as Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review: “So, what are you really looking for?” The expectation is that I provide a rubric for excellence, or at least a means to getting a poem published in KR, or at least some rationale for my own personal tastes and intentions as a poetry editor. It is a well-meaning, sensible question, and yet I have no sufficient answer.
“I am looking for the poem I didn’t know I was looking for” is usually my reply, if not my answer. And the bounce-back goes something like this: “That’s not helpful” or “What do you mean by that?” or “Are you pulling our legs?”
I mean my reply seriously and literally. Otherwise, if I knew in advance what the next poem or poems should be, then somehow I will have defeated one of the functions of poetry—to surprise, to offer newness and otherness—and I will have betrayed as well my own sense of pleasure and discovery. Each new poem should change the landscape, even just a little; it should bring something I wasn’t anticipating to the page. I try hard and in evolving ways to prepare myself to recognize that surprise. It is easy to sort out the good from the bad poems. It is hard, and takes longer and more rereading, to sort out the good from the necessary and new.
Solmaz Sharif’s poem, “Personal Effects,” reminds me again why I love this job and what the job actually is. Her poem is atypically long, but in three other ways it is entirely typical of the poetry I hope to select for the Review. It offers freshness. It offers accomplishment. It offers significance. It is a poem I did not know I was seeking, and yet, from the first encounter (I have read it now at least thirty times) I knew it was the poem I needed.
“Personal Effects” is a poem by a young poet. Sharif is an American woman, born in Istanbul of Iranian parents, and at this writing is twenty-nine years old. She is a teacher and she is still a student, having completed her MFA at New York University in the spring of 2009 and starting, this past fall, at Stanford University as a poetry fellow in the Stegner program. She has written a poem for herself that is also a poem for us all. There is so much to say about “Personal Effects”—its kinship to Darwish and Carson, to Barthes and Sontag, to Wojahn, Mattawa, Rukeyser, and so many more; its formal adventure and proficiencies; its wisdom, its conscience, and the gift of its profound sympathies.
The story itself is simple. In the early 1980s, Sharif’s uncle, Amoo, “son of an imam, brother to six,” was killed. A soldier at the time, he was one of hundreds of thousands who died in the first years of the war between Iran and Iraq. So the poem is Sharif’s attempt to come to terms with his death and the residual losses of his death. It is—she hopes—an attempt finally to meet the man who is already beyond her reach, who died a year or two before her birth, in a war he “didn’t want to have / anything // to do with.” To construct a portrait of Amoo (this informal name in Persian suggests he is a brother of the speaker’s father), Sharif assembles fragments, shards of images, pieces of languages, prior and sometimes contradictory narrative accounts from family, news media, friends, and strangers. What skill she brings to bear, even in a single image: “I sat rolling little ears of pasta off my thumb like helmets.” In a simple, literal way these images and stories in “Personal Effects” accumulate into an “album,” as she calls it from the onset, a linguistic rather than pictorial collection that intends a kind of objective focus and clarity, assembling as much information as possible to understand the life and death of a man whom Sharif will never meet. Of course, as with all language, all points of view, the objective is as impossible as the complete, or even the sufficient. As she proceeds, she comes to realize the fundamental irony of her work: “each photo is an absence.” “Personal Effects” is the accrual of pieces, inscriptions concurrent with, sometimes overtaken by, erasures.
I greatly admire the political and cultural intensity of this poem. It is a complaint in the ancient poetic mode—a complaint against death, a protest against war, against the damages of history and the brutal abuses of language and, importantly, by means of language. But finally the poem is not so much a “political” poem (a mode which can be flattened by certainty or indignant accusation) as an elegy. All she wants is to meet her uncle, to say “Hello” and shake his hand, to know him. That is the pointed gesture toward which all the effort of the poem leads. In the final section, she imagines “as if in a film projection” that she approaches him “in the new Imam Khomeini Airport,” and so only here, in the impossible conclusion, do they meet: “You stoop, extend a hand. . . .” The final articulation of the poem—while admittedly a “half-lie”—is also both an affirmation, of love and of art, and a question. In answer to his imagined greeting, “Do you know who I am?” she replies, “Yes, Amoo. // How could I not?” What a fine touch, to italicize her answer to Amoo’s question, but not italicize her final utterance, which therefore is directed to us rather than to him, an acknowledgment of his absence and the substitution of our presence in the poem.
“Personal Effects” reminds us of the inevitable, elusive nature of poetic language. The subject is always already gone, beyond us, out of reach, and receding further. The subject is precisely that which evades. “Personal Effects” also reminds us of the powerful uses to which language is put by political forces. Running throughout the poem are terms and phrases which Sharif has lifted directly out of the US Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (2007):
Daily I sit
with the language
of our language
the CAPABILITY of LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMs
If “Personal Effects” is an album of depictions of Amoo, it is also a catalog of military phrases, those devastating euphemisms made to sterilize the language and control its effects—or the effects of war and destruction—on us. She weaves these terms seamlessly (but pointedly by means of their capitalized appearance) through the narrative accounts of her whole poem. This technique becomes one of the profound accomplishments of “Personal Effects”—itself a phrase from the Defense Department text. Rather than ignore the language of war-makers, or merely to submit to their coercions, Sharif adopts and reimagines that language. The effects are powerfully and alternately ironic and elegiac. She refuses to accept the language as it is given to her (“Fuck // CELESTIAL GUIDANCE.”), and she turns it back on, and against, its perpetrators. Amoo is “COLLATERAL DAMAGE,” his father a “PERSON ELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE EFFECTS,” while grief is “A CLOSED AREA.” In this way Sharif’s poem becomes a brilliant act of intervention and resistance. If she cannot resist death, she can nonetheless resist and reinvent the uses of such language. Language, in her hands, is resuscitated, vibrant and alive.
This kind of wordplay is central to Sharif’s poem. Who possesses language? Who has such power? Language is a powerful weapon but it is also a powerful balm of sympathy and love. She accuses, she narrates, she shifts her points of view, she aims widely and narrowly, she stutters and forgets, and persists. In fact, her own poetic techniques take on multiple purposes themselves, just as she has demanded of the Defense Department text. If she adjusts the justification of her margins (sections are left-justified, right-justified, center-justified), that is a way to ask us to consider how any single tactic can be an adequate justification. Is there justice? Is war just? If her margins shift, we consider the marginalized and manipulated lives of soldiers and the other victims of war. If the center of her poem seems to shift, it is to show us that wherever we aim our sights, our gaze, we are always belated in that vision of things, adjusting, slipping, realigning, trying to get one clear view, but too late. Her lines are short and long, lineated and in prose, sometimes punctuated and sometimes erased, evacuated even as we read them. Throughout, with all of these shifting methods, Sharif’s writing is sparkling, precise, subtle, artful, and true.
You’ll see. “Personal Effects” is one of the most exciting poems to come my way in some time. My notions here do not begin to articulate its accomplishments and gifts. Why did I choose it? It seems to have chosen me.