What I See Are Your Hands: On Look by Solmaz Sharif

David Baker

Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2016. 100 pages. $16.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Solmaz Sharif’s new book of poems, her first, is entitled Look, but it might more accurately be called Look Again. Sharif’s primary gesture—and her narrative strategy—is to reconsider and rearticulate: to see again and so to revise. This enthralling book succeeds in ways and to an extent that few others have in recent years, blending rhetorical and formal types with both ease and urgency, configuring political narratives with personal ones ranging from erotic and confessional to familial. In fact, Sharif demonstrates again that these categories are, in the hands of a real poet, not just limited but perhaps misguided and misleading.

The daughter of Iranian parents, political activists who fled the Iranian Revolution for Turkey and then the United States, Sharif writes with an acute conscience about the ongoing strife and terror in both the Middle East and America: “On YouTube, Blackwater / agents MOP UP bad guys / from a Najaf roof / like they’re staving off / zombies.” She is also a product of her postmodern American millennial upbringing, as her self-portrait in “Force Visibility”:

Everywhere we went, I went
in pigtails
no one could see—

ribbon curled
by a scissor’s sharp edge,
the bumping our cars

undertook when hitting
those strips
along the interstate

meant to shake us
awake.

To be shaken awake, to be conscious of those effects meant to work on our subconscious minds, is part of this book’s rhetorical purpose. Only a few lines later in this poem, she performs one of her own most forceful effects. Discussing her distaste for New Wave Cinema, she writes, “I will never / get into . . . the soft whir // of CONTINUOUS STRIP IMAGERY.” Here she activates a filmic trope, of course, but also explicitly deploys a phrase from the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Such reappropriation and reapplication of military language is one of this powerful book’s most shattering effects.

Look is about power. Since, as her title attests, “it matters what you call a thing,” Sharif’s project examines the language available to us—and everywhere denied us—from our most intimate or erotic relationships to our most social and cultural ones. How often we are compromised by the limitation of our language, and how often those limitations are forced on us. One of her sustained effects of this limitation and loss is the literal erasure of language. In “Reaching Guantanamo,” a seven-part sequence of short love letters from a woman to her husband, apparently a prisoner at the secretive CIA facility, Sharif enacts the removal of language—the purposeful redaction—even in the most unlikely or apolitical of gestures:

Dear Salim,

Love, are you well? Do they            you?
I worry so much. Lately, my hair            , even
my skin                  . The doctors tell me it’s
I believe them. It shouldn’t
    . Please don’t worry.
                                        in the yard, and moths
have gotten to your mother’s
                                                     , remember?

These are the opening lines of the first section of “Reaching Guantanamo.” As the sequence continues, the losses accrue, becoming by paradox more visible, made palpable by the terrible gaps in experience and communication we witness, suffer, and inflict. What remains of the language feels like code, while the evacuated gaps are charged by our imaginations as we inscribe our own guesswork into Salim and his never-named wife’s intimate exchange. Nowhere is there an account of any direct political narrative or observation, yet even the most “innocent” of comments—the natural, the familial—are compromised and altered, torn by military oversight and redaction. Nothing has gone untouched.

Erasure is a commonplace tactic for poets these days, to be sure, an easy enough workshop prompt. As an enaction of time’s erosion, it can provide a useful reminder of the manipulation and decay always at play on language, as on experience, on emotion. Mary Ruefle, for instance, has made the technique especially vivid and artful, and Orlando White investigates the related conceit of “white space” for its theoretical, racial, and lyric suggestions. Likewise, because Sharif grounds her own work in such specific narratives (the politics of military redaction; the erasure of privacy and intimacy; the expressed tension among forms of power, whether genderal, religious, or governmental), her erasures feel not just successful, but mandatory. In her poems the absented gestures and the erased language are felt, dramatic things.

If her primary poetic tactic were erasure, I would find Sharif’s Look a fine book. Like Philip Metres, a strong new Arab American poet, Sharif exploits the gaps and redactions managed by powerful political entities that have been particularly intense—and socially sanctioned—since 9/11. Of course censorship has as long a history as language itself. But Sharif further ironizes and deepens her practice by an even more extended tactic, the opposite of erasure, or its reversal: that is, the putting in of language rather than the taking out. Primarily using the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, she repossesses the euphemistic idioms of warfare and silence-tactics, embedding those words and phrases back into her poems. A “BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION,” she shows, indicates something “on fire” but also at other times “a body running.” As here, sometimes her reposted phrases are presented as alphabetized definitions, sometimes as part of a descriptive passage (“We were FRIENDLY beneath the gazebo’s LATTICE”), and sometimes, most powerfully, she exercises the reinserted, preapproved phrases within the poem’s narrative to further emphasize both the euphemism and its actual reference:

You are what is referred to as
a “CASUALTY.” Unclear whether
from a CATALYTIC or FRONTAL ATTACK, unclear

the final time you were addressed

thou, beloved. It was for us a
CATASTROPHIC EVENT.

Just, DESTROYED.

Sharif has a wonderfully tuned ear for the polyphonic echoes of each single phrase, with only a few applications that feel forced or stiff. By italics, at times by all capital letters or by quotation marks, her methods of demarking the reused phrases serve not only to repossess and rehabilitate them but also to turn them back, with insistence vigor, on the forces that would soften the brutal facts or misrepresent the actual events being described—events purposely hidden by the subterfuge of verbal diversion. For instance, in some uses, “SUSTAINABILITY” might suggest a worthy ecological intonation or some other admirable measure of endurance or capability; but it is also, she shows, a bloodless euphemism for accepting the human losses from war, torture, and abuse.

To be sure, Look is a book of poems about more than war. It is about family, about selfhood, identity, and social tenderness, and Sharif’s formal capabilities are very wide—from prose poems to catalogues, from quantitative syllabics to well-tuned free verse. But nowhere are we permitted to forget the underlying agency of political coercion and the corruption of language, and nowhere are Sharif’s concentrations more powerful and more successful than in the book’s centerpiece, a long poem entitled “Personal Effects.” What follows is an abbreviated version of a piece I wrote for this magazine, about this poem, three years ago.

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. Yet 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 again 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. As elsewhere in Look, running throughout this poem are terms and phrases which Sharif has lifted directly out of the U. S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (2007):

Daily I sit
with the language
they’ve made

of our language

to NEUTRALIZE
the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS
like you.

If “Personal Effects” is an album of depictions of Amoo, it is also a catalog of military phrases, 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 word play is central to Sharif’s work. 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. In this important poem, and through the fine achievement of Look, Solmaz Sharif gives us the gift of her unflinching gaze.

 

Note
I first encountered Sharif’s work in 2012 at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where I saw early drafts of “Personal Effects,” this book’s centerpiece and one of the most moving and significant longer poems in recent years. We were pleased to be able to print the poem in KR (Spring 2013) along with an accompanying statement of my own. I have used a portion of that short essay again here, in my discussion of the poem within the larger achievement of Look.

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