Buzzed Books #46 by Amy Watkins
Solmaz Sharif’s Look
In a September 2014 feature for the Kenyon Review Online, “A Poetry of Proximity,” Solmaz Sharif calls poets “the caretakers of language.” She writes:
The State exerts (or at least attempts) authority over us in many ways, including its use of language: passive construction, missing subjects, riotous chiasmus, etc. A combination of rhetorical flourish, euphemism, and passivity provide the State with the means to justify, formally, warfare. Today, the President of the Free World can have a kill list, can proclaim he is really good at killing, and there is hardly a shudder here. This is because our here is so small, because we are not hearing what is below the dead language. In a poem, our relationship to these languages change.
To resuscitate the dead language, to bring readers closer to the meaning those State-sanctioned euphemisms hide is the goal of Sharif’s first poetry collection, Look (Graywolf, 2016). To say that goal is significant seems like a grotesque understatement, particularly as I’m writing this on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Fifteen years later, Sharif demands our attention to the abuse, injustice, and inhumanity that are still part of the fallout of those attacks and the United States’ response to them.
Sharif uses terms from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, reappropriating the words, altering our “proximity” to them. In the title poem, the first in the collection, those terms form a humanizing argument that hinges on the word “look” (in military terms, “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence”):
Whereas I thought, if he would LOOK at my exquisite face
or my father’s, he would reconsider; […]
Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is
your life? It is even a THERMAL SHADOW, it appears
so little, and then vanishes from the screen; […]
Let it matter what we call a thing.
The various meanings of the word “look” must be pondered: seeing, noticing, paying attention, but also–in the context of that military definition–being receptive to change, being open to another’s experience. The best poems in the book make us look. They remind me uncomfortably of the human beings on the far side of the dehumanizing language of the past decade and a half of war.
As in most collections, there are many very strong poems and a few that are less successful. In a few instances, the use of military terms feels forced, at least to my ear. Sustaining that premise in poems about family, personal relationships, and even politics is a challenge, which is better met in some poems than others.
At the end of the second and longest section in the book, Sharif includes a sequence of linked poems called “Reaching Guantánamo.” Each poem takes the form of a redacted letter, with blank spaces left where words have been erased. In some cases, the reader can fill in the blanks, but in others the missing words are mysterious–meaning and emotions, places and people lost to the State’s control of language. These are some of the strongest poems in the collection, and drive home the distance war has placed between the imagined letter writer and reader, the writer and censor, the words and their meanings.
Overall, Sharif’s Look is ambitious, intelligent, moving, important, and a little dangerous. After all, we let the state sanitize the language of war for a reason. It is poetry’s responsibility to return integrity to discourse for writers, readers, and citizens.
Pair this collection with a glass of Amaro Meletti, a bitter liqueur.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.