by Jordan Makant
Graywolf Press, 2016
I do not know what to write in response to Look, Solmaz Sharif’s debut collection of poems. Perhaps that is the point. After all, what is one supposed to say in the face of war? In the face of terror? In the face of violence made so familiar that words previously used only in the military have wormed their way into our vernacular with no regard whatsoever for the lives destroyed by the things those words describe? What is one supposed to say in the face of a reality one will never have to know?
I do not pretend to know the answers to these questions, and neither does Look’s narrator. The anger, the love, the loss, the complex range of emotion is felt constantly, but Sharif never takes that passion and misshapes it into a history lesson or a how-to guide. Look is not a sermon, it is not a lecture, it is an elegiac reflection on the fact that we all get so accustomed to terrible situations that we learn to ignore them. This, Sharif makes clear, goes for those involved in the situations as well; one of the long poems in the collection, “Personal Effects”, opens with the lines “I place a photograph of my uncle on my computer desktop, which means I learn to ignore it.”
How can one ignore such violence? Throughout the collection, Sharif utilizes words and phrases from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, pointing them out by noticeably altering their font, to make clear to the reader from the very beginning how easy it is to slip into military language, and how easy it is from there to forget what “collateral damage” really means. What is remarkable is the way in which, despite the fact that the reader knows right away that certain font-altered words are criticisms of the ways we dehumanize other human beings, the words still somehow become normalized after seeing them only three or four times. There is no escaping this normalization, so the narrator alters the approach: “Reaching Guantanamo” contains no military terms meant to jar the reader, instead relying on the incredibly frustrating to read partially-erased or censored letters to the narrators’ love, Salim. The epistolary poems achieve their desired result, and by the conclusion of the poem, the reader is forced to acknowledge that the narrator’s concerns might be right: “They all say / the same story / and none tell ours” (51).
I return to the fact that I do not know what to write in response to this collection. It is a haunting book, as cold as the dictionary it borrows from and yet as warm as the heart of the grieving narrator. Its poetry is simultaneously filled with sadness and with a sense of hope. Reading of people who died and applying the loss to my own life, I began to lose that sense of hope; even worse, I began to fear that what little hope the opening poem provides (“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.”) was nothing more than a projection of my hopelessly naive imagination. And perhaps it was just my imagination. This book is not about calming one’s fears and assuring oneself everything is going to be okay. It is meant to disturb. And yet, when the reader finally arrives at the closing poem, “Drones,” which may just be the finest in the entire collection, I cannot help but think that hint of hope sneaks back in:
: 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
Let me say this one final time: I do not know what to write in response to Look. But I do know there are stories we are not reading or listening to. Stories of pain. Stories of trauma. Stories of violence we are all complicit in. Reading and listening to these stories hurts. But we must read. We must listen. We must learn to sing more children calm, together. Perhaps Look can be a starting point for those of us who have learned to fear opening our eyes.