“Let me LOOK at you”: On Look by Solmaz Sharif

Lisa Higgs

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

Solmaz Sharif’s debut collection of poetry, Look, seems like anything but a first book. Surely a collection bookended by the powerhouse poems “Look” and “Drone” must be by a poet at the height of her career, whose clear voice and precise poetic direction draws readers into an elegy of family and a lost country, compounded by an equally powerful lament on the neutering of language for political expediency. Sharif’s melding of her own losses with those of others impacted by the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and our current War on Terror grows into a catalog of voices that demand attention.

“It matters what you call a thing,” opens the titular poem “Look.” Sharif might equally say that it matters whose voices are able to name. Framed as argument, “Look” considers a disparate group: a judge, drone operators, a lover who names the speaker “Exquisite,” and “the man outside the 2004 Republican National Convention.” Most of the poem’s stanzas begin with “Whereas,” as Sharif attempts to prove how humanity is inclined to obscure meaning:

Whereas I feel the need to clarify: You would put up with
             TORTURE, you mean and he proclaimed: Yes,

Whereas it could take as long as 16 seconds between
             the trigger pulled in Las Vegas and the Hellfire missile
             landing in Mazar-e-Sharif, after which they will ask
             Did we hit a child? No. A dog. they will answer themselves . . .

The answer to this initial argument plays out through the remainder of the collection in manifold forms and multitudes of voice; however, for “Look,” the answer comes in terms of sight:

Whereas A dog, they will say: Now, therefore,

Let it matter what we call a thing.

Let it be the exquisite face for at least 16 seconds.

Sharif’s use of first-person in her collection invites readers into points of view that have largely been ignored, with the “I’s” as likely to be an intelligence officer or a battlefield soldier as the poet herself. At first, the effect is disorienting—who is talking, and to whom? Is it the poet as herself or the poet as persona? Am I the intended “I” in these poems? Hidden within the erasure poem “Reaching Guantánamo”—a redacted series of letters from a wife to her Yemeni husband—a hint comes in the form of a partially erased reference to Nazim Hikmet’s epic Human Landscapes from My Country, which details the lives of Turkish people from all walks of life. Similarly, Sharif uses her “I” as a means of bringing disparate experiences of America together.

No poem encapsulates this multiplicity of voice better than her CODA poem “Drone,” with fathers taken and grandmothers fingerprinted. While Sharif’s family members have been encountered in more intimate portraits in earlier poems, their appearance in this fractured final sequence gives them a universality that is decidedly new. This father, this grandmother could well be your own. Likewise, the “I” is itself and the reader:

: I wrote their epitaphs in chalk

: from my son’s wedding mattress I know this
mound’s his room

: I dropped a knee and engaged the enemy

: I emptied my clip then finished the job

Violence abounds; women are raped. The dead are everywhere on the streets and in the homes of what is assumed, at first glance, to be a far-off country. In everyday America, limitation and a failure of imagination: “: an American interrupts an A and B / conversation to tell me you don’t have to do / anything you don’t want to do.” Sharif says hello to the NSA each time she makes a call. Even so, moments of laughter and song near brutal in their tenderness:

: my mother tape records my laugh to mail
bubblewrapped back home

: my mother records me singing Ye shabe
mahtab mah miad to khab

: I am singing the moon will come one night
and take me away side street by side street

Sharif’s collection is full of large moments and major poems (read David Baker’s insights on the collection’s centerpiece “Personal Effects” for Kenyon Review), but some of the smallest continue to resonate with me. Who can forget the young child of “Expellee,” who sits through doctor’s check-ups and INS waiting lines and sees:

                                       . . . Numbered windows,
numbered tongues hanging out of red dispensers

you pull at the butcher shop. The ground meat left out
for strays, the sewing needles planted in it.

Or the haiku-like pair of poems opening Sharif’s second section:

                                                              a body running

PINPOINT TARGET    one lit desk lamp
                                        and a nightgown walking past the window

In the above poems, Sharif suggests that humanity sometimes selects people to be not human. The stray child, the stray dog. The body on fire, nameless. The woman, not a woman but a nightgown. A nightgown to be targeted, and readers sense immediately that Sharif knows the many vulnerabilities of a woman dressed for bed peered at through a window.

Much has already been made of Sharif’s use of terms from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, which appear in small caps in a majority of Look’s poems. Through careful juxtaposition, Sharif makes private moments of everyday life precarious—a “thermal shadow” marks sexual intimacy deadly in “Look” and a “permanent echo” rebounds less divinely than ominously through the acoustically designed domes of Masjid-e Imam in “Break-Up.” In her most powerful political poems, among them “Safe House,” “Deception Story,” and the elegiac “Personal Effects,” the technique tears through the expected discourse put forth by the America government and media, forcing readers to confront the personal realities that grow out of seemingly distant policy decisions. Several of the poems do not seem to benefit as much from the technique: “Ground Visibility” includes a “guard” that seems no less threatening in the form, and “Mess Hall” ends in “fire” more powerfully through its use of direct address, “America,” than font change.

Regardless, Sharif has created an essential book of poetry for this time and this place. As she wrote in a 2013 essay about erasure: “The political . . . is not, as its strictest definition supposes, something relegated to legislative halls, but something enacted wherever power is at hand, power being at hand wherever there is a relation, including the relation between text and reader.” Future generations can quibble over Sharif’s use of small caps as a way to link the poems of this intense collection. Today’s reader-citizens must be challenged to consider the relationship between language and power, action and power, distancing and power. Solmaz Sharif and other politically inclined poets have much work ahead of them, and what an uneasy pleasure it will be to encounter future books with future provocative poems by this debut author as she documents America’s best and worst moments.


Work Cited
Sharif, Solmaz. “The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure.” Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 28, April 2013—Erasure issue)

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