Personal Effects: A Review of Look by Solmaz Sharif

by Nyla Matuk

Nyla Matuk is the author of two books of poetry: Stranger (Véhicule Press, 2016) and Sumptuary Laws (Véhicule Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in The New YorkerNew Poetries VIBest Canadian Poetry in English, PN Review, CNQ, Prelude, and other journals in Canada, the US, and the UK. Find out more on her website.

Look by Solmaz Sharif
Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota, 55401

2016, 96 pp, $22.99, 9781555977443


It’s unlikely that anyone of Persian or Middle Eastern descent living in the United States from mid-century or later could have envisioned, 50 years on, that they would receive so much negative attention because of the “War on Terror,” the US’s aggressive destabilization and control of the Middle East, Afghanistan, North Africa, and those regions’ resources. In August 2016, an imam and his assistant were gunned down in broad daylight on Liberty Street, near a Queen’s, New York mosque, one of several Islamophobic hate crimes perpetrated in a climate of fear-mongering, suspicion, and ignorance that has also gripped France, Canada, and many parts of continental Europe in recent years. This hate crime, along with similar assaults or murders of Muslims, has received scant coverage by mainstream media outlets such as CNN.

As a citizen of the West with ethnic, religious, or mnemonic ties to countries subjected to Western military and diplomatic interference (Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Palestine, Syria or Afghanistan, to name a few), it is difficult to write literature without acknowledging the climate of suspicion of the Other. If we disapprove of Western interference, are we to be considered dissidents in the West, and what value and meaning, if any, would one ascribe to Western allegiance, under such circumstances? This is the kind of political question that Solmaz Sharif’s Look asks, indirectly. Born in Turkey to Iranian parents, Sharif has said her work is “first political, then documentary.” It is also a poetry of proximity: for Sharif, “language is we realized,” i.e., “each word has passed mouth by mouth over the centuries, changed by intonation and accent, changed by wit and utility.” Take for instance the book’s title, whose military meaning Sharif establishes in the wry form of an epigraph to the book:

look — (*) In mine warfare, a period during which a mine
circuit is receptive of an influence.

Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms
United States Department of Defense

Look realizes this dramatic, fated connectedness, beginning with one of the most proximal moments in the book, early on:

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. (from “Look”)

If civilians were killed daily by foreign drones in America, as they are in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, American “terror agents” would surely take revenge on foreign soil. As it is, however, displays of political boosterism abet the neoliberal state’s War on Terror. For instance, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim couple whose son, US Captain Humayun Khan, was killed during the US invasion of Iraq, encouraged Hillary Clinton’s accession to power at the Democratic National Convention despite the fact that Clinton voted in favour of the Iraq war. Clinton continues to consort with ruthless figures such as Henry Kissinger and the Saudi royal family, and has fought for legislation enabling continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has used those weapons to kill thousands in Yemen.

Look opens the way for a new internationalist regard in American poetry.

The condition of being a subject of in-between-ness, and the social condition of Otherness, must be brought to bear reading Look. Look foregrounds the embodied horrors and violence visited upon those abroad, bringing them right back home to America in a dialogic poetry-making that is possibly the most important testament to American foreign policy in poetry written after 9/11. Sharif’s speakers show us what it is like to be the subject upon whom the full force of US or other military power is visited, to be “receptive of an influence.”

Sharif subverts and repurposes terminology from the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, whose technical language euphemizes the barbarity of war strategy by treating war merely as the engagement of practical experience and procedure, by unreservedly depicting the costs of loss. The speakers’ flat affect, in turn, alludes to the dry documentation of horror in news and media rhetoric. Early in the opening poem, “Look,” Sharif uses a legal formulation to put the speaker immediately in the role of the Other—the brown, Middle Eastern Other—who is by default indicted in relation to a pro-war iteration. It begins with exceptionalism as a concept: “It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me. Exquisite.” The repetition of “exquisite” connotes exoticism perhaps, and, in any case, signals the exceptionalism of the Other, even an American who is deemed Other, in an exchange that is far from romantic:

Whereas Well, if I were from your culture, living in this country,
said the man outside the 2004 Republican National
Convention, I would put up with that for this country;

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

Whereas what is your life;

Using the legalese-inflected “whereas” anaphora, which connotes an intractable, bureaucratic kind of ignorance and cruelty, Sharif leaps between images: a judge wanting to pronounce a defendant’s name correctly during sentencing; a lover “making my heat rise”; atrocities such as people having their hands tied behind their backs, and shot; a mention of the Patriot Act. The poem ends:

Whereas I cannot control my own heat and it can take
as long as 16 seconds between the trigger, the Hellfire
missile, and A dog. they will answer themselves;

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.

Let me LOOK at you.

Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.

These seemingly disparate details—killings, a dog, a lover, heat, a missile, all converging on the “LOOK,” i.e., “what is receptive of an influence”—and the book’s energetic coupling of acts of murder with distinctly American details, ingeniously enable readers to see the horror of war as an immediate and embodied act of pure violence—one not occurring over there, but right here in the present, possibly within 16 seconds. The sexual proximity of the bodies is a metaphor for bringing the violence home, closing off the geographic not only between two bodies but two places: over here and over there. This brilliant dialogic device of interpolation is used repeatedly and propels Sharif’s poetics to show us the incongruities between American soil and its theatres of war. The proposition “if I were from your culture, living in this country,” encapsulates how being an American who is also an Other precludes the constitutional right to not be tortured.

Look foregrounds the embodied horrors and violence visited upon those abroad, bringing them right back home to America.

In a perfect linguistic segue to the second part of the book, an epigraph by Muriel Rukeyser elaborates Sharif’s documentarian effect, again emphasizing the apparently inexplicable nature of the aggression of the West onto the dehumanized Other:

During the war, we felt the silence in the policy of the governments of English-speaking countries. That policy was to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterward. The result was, of course, that the meanings were lost.

The silence was felt and meanings were lost: passivity (“receptive of an influence,” again) runs through this collection, a reminder not only of the condition of helplessness, but of the trauma of war and the almost hypnotic acceptance of fate:

[T]he report on the brother’s liver: it’s failing, and he
doesn’t want the sisters around because they will pray
and cry over him like he’s already dead. Sisters unfurl
black shawls from suitcases to drape over their heads.
I carry trays of dates before the men, offer little
square napkins, thank their condolences, hold the matriarchs
while they rock. I answered yes when one asked,
does that mean he’s going to die? (from “Family of Scatterable Mines”)

A few pages later, a terrifying juxtaposition occurs. “Theater,” on the left-hand side of the page, features a petrified civilian hiding from soldiers in a mosque, trying to “still” his or her lashes to appear invisible:

as rifles came clanging in
their muzzles smelling out fear
heated off a pulse
I was playing dead
between the dead
a beast caught sight of my breath
blew off my face
said
“Now he’s fucking dead.”

On the right-hand side of the page, the poem “Soldier, Home Early, Surprises His Wife in Chick-fil-A” consists of a series of news headlines about soldiers returning home from war: “Soldier Surprises Family on the Field During an NFL Game”; “Military Dad, Disguised as Captain America, Surprises His Son on His Birthday”; “Soldier Surprises Girlfriend at Baseball Game, Then Proposes.” Taken together, “Theater” and “Soldier” contrast nightmarish fear, on one hand, with joyful human interest reportage—news ticker stories about events occurring somewhere in America, on a typically beautiful American day.

The navel-gazing that constitutes so much of [America’s] domestic headlines and nationalist self-congratulation reveals a bankrupt position.

Sharif has established two realities: one is of American aggression abroad, which she depicts with immediacy and embodiment as life and death collide in various scenarios of violence; the other reality is that of moments of bourgeois celebration. The two realities are not documented in American mainstream media; whatever nightmares occur due to war, they occur over there. Sharif’s sequence of these two poems, one after another, documents the reality of the (demonized) Other alongside life’s comforting banalities. These scenarios, different as they are, seem to suggest that whatever you do over there, you can at least come home afterward. The War on Terror is about freedom worth fighting for.

These juxtapositions are not only a kind of dark mimicry of the upkeep of troop morale, but also signal, indirectly, a disturbing discourse of levity in the run-up to the presidential election, where pundits enjoy the novelty of referring to Bill Clinton as America’s first First Gentleman while the war criminal Henry Kissinger endorses Hillary.

While Sharif’s montages toggle between mainstream American life and the blood-soaked strategy of war, they indirectly ask readers to see, in America, its utter failure to confront its destructions abroad. Eavan Boland, in her blurb of the book, says, “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.”

“America, ignore the window and look at your lap: / even your dinner napkins are on FIRE,” Sharif writes in “Mess Hall,” which begins:

Your knives rip down
in the dish rack
of the replica plantation home,
you wash hands

with soaps pressed into seahorses
and scallop shells white
to match your guest towels,
and, like an escargot fork, America,

you have found dimensions
small enough to break
a man—
a wet rag,

a bullet, a bullet
like a bishop
or an armless knight
of the Ku Klux Klan

The poem’s imagery of the antebellum south, of plantations and white supremacist violence, underscores the lack of progress that characterizes America today: that ugly chapter of its history continues with the demonization and destruction of the brown or black Other. In the context of current American foreign policy, Sharif’s poem shows that even as America might be looking outside herself (outside American “homeland” experience), the navel-gazing that constitutes so much of its domestic headlines and nationalist self-congratulation reveals a bankrupt position; just as liberal America braced for the potential triumph of electing a female president, it ends as a zero-sum game through the obvious moral failure of such an act to prevent millions from being tortured and/or killed in American wars and proxy wars fully supported, in the past and going forward, by that president-elect.

[P]assivity runs through this collection, a reminder not only of the condition of helplessness, but of the trauma of war and the almost hypnotic acceptance of fate.

The fact that Look was published in an election year fraught with the choice between two terrible frontrunners makes it impossible not to give this book a politically charged reading, yet Sharif never trades poetry for didacticism. Given that poetry sidesteps the practical limitations of diplomacy or reportage, so that it can be everywhere at once, Look‘s politics are bound up essentially with its poetics. Sharif is not, ultimately, telling us what to think—she is showing us what is happening, and we have no choice but to look.

Reviewing Look in The New York Times, poet Natalie Diaz observed, “the language of Look is a body that cannot be separated from its maker—it is always the best and worst of its speakers’ desires, needs and actions. Language can never be innocent.” While language is in some sense a character in the book, a shared symbology of victimhood and victimizer, I have chosen to extrapolate from Look a more politicized condition of knowing which the book’s documentarian language permits.

“Personal Effects,” a long elegy for Sharif’s uncle killed in the Iran-Iraq war, features powerful, personal ekphrastics from photographs of the deceased:

each photo is an absence,
a thing gone, namely
a moment, sometimes cities

[…]

His father grew very quiet
His father would
HEAVY DROP sob
behind a closed door

His father was
PERSON ELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE EFFECTS
A PILLBOX of opium
in his sock drawer

[…]

I am happy

to see your bare feet
in this photo. They are
the only things that

made me cry.

[…]

I wrote
I burn my finger on the broiler
and smell trenches, my uncle

pissing himself. “How can she write that?
She doesn’t know.”

The book’s final section, “Coda,” begins with an epigraph by Frank Bidart, “… Let this be the Body / through which the War has passed,” and the section’s only poem, “Drone,” repeats the elegiac lines, “I burn my finger on the broiler / and smell trenches, my uncle / pissing himself.” Such embodied, tactile, documented details are powerful empathic devices because they compel readers to imagine what it is to be Other and see what violence the West is capable of.

The repeated use of tactile details, and the ekphrastic looking at photographs which allow for witnessing, remind us of the repetitive quality of trauma: the way, for instance, recurring fragmented memories would afflict soldiers suffering from PTSD. Sharif ends the book with an image of empathy, an observation of the fragile Other who has had to submit to a refrain of violence:

:     is this what happens to a brain born into war
:     a city of broken teeth
:     the thuds of falling
:     we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter
:     I am singing to her still. (from “Drone”)

This image of moral clarity is a devastating foil to the emptying of language perpetrated by the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms and the American media, whose faux-neutrality dehumanizes the victims of violence with the usual corporate propaganda effort.

Seven years in the making, Look opens the way for a new internationalist regard in American poetry. Permitting an unflinching depiction of the fallout of Western violence abroad while questioning the morality of ignoring or supporting that violence, it’s one of a small handful of moments of political consciousness-raising in American literature since 9/11. By asking us to look not just at America, but also at those America has killed, Solmaz Sharif has produced an extraordinary and vital work of poetry.

 


Nyla Matuk is the author of two books of poetry: Stranger (Véhicule Press, 2016) and Sumptuary Laws (Véhicule Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in The New YorkerNew Poetries VIBest Canadian Poetry in English, PN Review, CNQ, Prelude, and other journals in Canada, the US, and the UK. Find out more on her website.

☝ BACK TO TOP