Look demands that the reader pay attention to their own relationship with the adopted, euphemistic language of power, politics and destruction.
It can be hard to fathom that for most of this century, we have been a nation at war. Such realities are kept at a safe distance in part by a coded language that downplays them with euphemism. Language holds an incredible political power derived from its ability to color the truth, exploiting and sanitizing our ability to make connections and connotations. This most insidious effect of war spreads through the way we speak about death and tragedy. Solmaz Sharif’s debut book of poetry utilizes this language of war as a source of power.
Born in Turkey to Iranian parents, Sharif studied at New York University and the University of California at Berkeley. Her poems use language taken from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a reference book that defines the euphemisms of war. But through their lyricism, Sharif’s work transcends the standard tropes of political poetry. Neither didactic nor angry, her poems delicately balance sadness and loss, anxiety and fear and hope and humor.
Sharif is a careful scavenger of language, embodying a multitude of poetic forms and exploiting words from the official reference work to augment their meanings as well as the meanings of her poetry. The two mesh so well that it feels natural and effortless. Take these lines from one of her longer poems, “Personal Effects” (note: words taken from the Department of Defense Dictionary are capitalized):
Daily I sit
with the language
of our language
the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS
Yet Sharif’s poems are more than just thoughtful lyrics. They often incorporate avant-garde forms that leave an impression of fractured, collage-like confusion as the author explores feelings through various poetic registers. While Look tends toward the non-traditional, it ultimately feels more like a collection of lyric influenced, political poems than a purely conceptual pursuit. For example, “Contaminated Remains” is a list of DoD words and Sharif’s poetic definitions. “Safe House” lists words that begin with the letter “S”:
SANCTUARY where we don’t have to
SANITIZE hands or words or knives, don’t have to use a
SCALE each morning, worried we take up to much space. I
SCAN my memory of baba talking on
Later in the book, Sharif turns her attention to the metaphor for the war in Iraq and its disastrous effects in Guantanamo Bay. The six-page poem “Reaching Guantanamo” is comprised of seven redacted “letters,” each of which begins “Dear Salim” and feel like worried messages from a family member. These are punctured by redacted material that permeate the book with metaphorical bullet holes. In the blank spaces we allow ourselves to fill in the trauma and explore that inability for language to express pain and loss.
But again, Sharif returns to beautiful and sprawling lyric poems that juxtapose the calculated, militaristic language with the language of feeling and poetry. Poems like “Perception Management” – “an unabridged list of operations” – is almost comical in its breadth, with absurd operation names like “Demon Digger” and “Bell Hurriyah (Enjoy Freedom)” that are even more striking in contrast to the beautifully somber “Vulnerability Study.”
The collection’s final poem, “Drone,” perfectly encapsulates everything alarming and melancholic in her poems. Small conversations with her father circle stories of her writing “epitaphs in chalk” of those killed. It is a poem as much about family trauma as about the national trauma of war. In the final lines of the book and the poem, we experience the anguish percolating throughout the collection:
: is this what happens to a brain born into war
: a city of broken teeth
: the thuds falling
: we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter
: I am singing to her still
The poet’s close attention to trauma, and the way it filters into the everyday, permeates this collection. From poems that address her father and family to poems written to lovers, war is inevitable. Sharif illustrates our connection to the language and the way it dictates our perception not just of world politics, but the way it colors our lives in the smallest ways. Illuminating and heartbreaking, Look demands that the reader pay attention to their own relationship with the adopted, euphemistic language of power, politics and destruction.