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Rick Larios Reviews Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK

LOOK, by Solmaz Sharif. (Graywolf Press, 2016)

LOOK is a powerful first collection by the Iranian-American poet Solmaz Sharif. One of the volume’s unifying features is its use of language pulled from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Sharif uses this language in ways that apply reality, transform meaning, and recover truth from obfuscation’s clarity—and she does so with stunning beauty. The title poem is the first of the volume’s three sections and it begins

It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me.
Exquisite.

Everything that follows that exquisite use of repetition, until the final four lines, begins with whereas.

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.

Later: “Whereas I thought if he would LOOK at my exquisite face or my father’s, he would reconsider” but no. “Whereas I made nothing happen”. Are these whereas(s) an indictment or a resolution? The poem’s final four lines:

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.

Sixteen seconds is the time between when a command given in Nevada to a Hellfire missile over its target and the time it strikes its target. In this instance, a look is essentially the time of opportunity, to site and read a target. But since the military is nothing if not precise in its attempts to create the illusion of precision where there is only obscurity and fear—uncertainty’s shadowy motive, look has an even more narrow meaning: “In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of influence.” To understand the mad artistry of that sentence from the USDoD’s dictionary, imagine it being read with ominous delight by Heath Ledger as the Joker. In character, the obscured sinisterness emerges. To combat such sinisterness we need to see its character, to unmask its disguised meaning.

Sharif unmasks this sinisterly clean language, with its precise, antiseptic meanings by applying it to a variety of knotted contexts: war, politics, immigration, love, loss, censorship, security, family. The result is a rescuing of meaning and an insightful look at the world, political and personal. Sharif documents our vulnerability but also our strength, our humanity, our capacity to resist influence, to find the exquisite in ourselves and each other.

The first section, the one poem, is brief, barely two pages long. The second section contains more than a score of poems, each using one or several or more terms whose meaning breaks from Webster’s into another more specific and very narrow technical meaning. Sharif shocks the given meaning, sometimes playfully (“PINPOINT TARGET one lit desklamp / and a nightgown walking past the window”), sometimes grimly (“BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION on fire / a body running”), but even the playful one only seems playful until you imagine the desklamp and nightgown observer is not a lover but a sniper. Not all these investigations touch on war and politics. BREAK UP is giving two definitions related to imagery, radar and photographic, from DoD’s dictionary and beneath each is an exploration of a relationship under the scrutiny of these definitions.

[I loved you at lunch]

the result of magnification

[when the coffee kicked in and you
cut the carrots into coins]

a random series

[for our salad, the satisfying, slow knocking
of the dull knife
against the cutting board
while I pretended to read
while I worshipped you
from the sofa, an]

enlargement which causes
[a slow pleasure
it was at least slow
how you moved, PATIENT and efficient,
unemployable and something
older, a shopkeeper on a stool.
I like to think, years apart,]

split up

The words in brackets are the relationship; those outside the brackets the definition.

One poem, “Reaching Guantanamo,” not the most successful in the collection, is a sequence addressed to an internee at Guantanamo prison with words and lines excised by censors. Here it not the hidden meanings but absent words that puzzle, provoke, and attempt the dehumanizing of reality.

Dear Salim,

                    have made a nest.
under our                    . And now
the nestlings always                             .
The                    of eggs has gone        .
And rice. And tea. I don’t know who
Decides              things.

Yours

These are poems of the modern world, with its rounds of warfare, where all damage is collateral, except when it is within the

DESTRUCTION RADIUS limited to blast site
and not the brother abroad
who answers his phone
then falls against the counter
or punches a cabinet door

The war poems in Look are about the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and the long war between Iran and Iraq. One is entitled PERCEPTION MANAGEMENT and is simply a block-form list of military operations. One line of which is: “LIGHTNING HAMMER * IRAQI HOME PROTECTOR * TOMBSTONE PILEDRIVER”.  PERCEPTION MANAGEMENT  is the first and only other poem besides PERSONAL EFFECTS in Section 3. PERSONAL EFFECTS is an elegy for the poet’s uncle who died in the Iran-Iraq War and the words are prompted by his photograph and other personal effects:

each photo is an absence,
a thing gone, namely
a moment, sometimes cities,
a tour boat balanced
on a two-story home
miles from shore.

Near the poem’s end, wrestling with her right to turn her uncle into a topic for her art:

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

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

She goes on to imagine an encounter with him, alive, at an airport named for Khomeini. Her uncle approaches.

…You stoop, extend a hand

Hello. Do you know who I am?

Yes, I tell you, I half-lie,
Yes. An address, beloved
lit
a rooftop of doves

              crouched to launch
Yes, Amoo.

How could I not.

The last line answers two questions, the one she asks herself and the one her dreamt uncle asks her. A first collection, LOOK is astonishing, insightful and moving. It may well move you to tears. How could it not.