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What We’re Reading: Look

2016 August 25
Comments Off on What We’re Reading: Look
by Liz Lampman

Look-1Look by Solmaz Sharif (Graywolf Press, July 2016)

I didn’t want to look. I started reading this book two times before I finished it. I tried to look away, but I knew that’s what I’ve been doing all along. Solmaz Sharif does the heavy lifting here, but this book requires fortitude, nonetheless. To see this world as the poet does, you must let part of your world fall apart.

This is like reading a dictionary in a mirror—the words are backwards, but you can also see yourself, blocking out the light at the edge of the page. Thus, Sharif reconfigures our perceptions of military euphemisms, a wedding updo, a letter to a loved one, a photo of a soldier.

In one sense, an unapologetic voice with unwavering purpose propels these poems. “Deception Story” begins: “Friends describe my DISPOSITION // as stoic. Like a dead fish, an ex said. DISTANCE // is a funny drug and used to make me a DISTRESSED PERSON.” Sharif blends military terms (in caps) with dialogue and creates a polyphonic experience of revelation. The poem ends, “My life in the American dream is a DOWNGRADE, // a mere DRAFT // of home. Correction: it satisfies as a DRAG. // It is, snarling, what I carve of it alone.” Amidst the thick description of violence and discrimination, I need poems like this one which offers a rare moment of first person exposition; I gain traction here with Sharif’s experience of America as an Iranian-American. The focus found in Look is unyielding, but sparingly and, at just the right times, Sharif exposes lyrical moments as both truth and balm. From “Vulnerability Study”:

8 strawberries in a wet blue bowl

baba holding his pants

up at the check point

a newlywed securing her updo

with grenade pins

Sharif never asks, or offers. Look, she directs. And at such images as these, how could you not? But this book is exceptional not only because of the way Sharif reimagines and re-deploys language, but also because she plays with form all through the book. Whether through prose, indentation, section breaks, or brackets, many poems beg to be read twice and three times, and they offer the reader double meanings, squared. “Reaching Guantánamo” simulates the letters inmates receive at Guantánamo; “Dear Salim,” each section begins. But after the greeting, seemingly innocuous language is erased from a lover’s letter to her spouse.

Love, I’m singing that                    you loved,

remember, the line that went

”                                                       “? I’m holding

the                        just for you.


This intrusion on private language eviscerates intimacy; occludes the sender from the letter itself. And so this epistolary poem represents the erasure and elimination of humans that is exercised in our time more than many of us could ever have imagined. Although the form is brutal, and the point heartbreaking, the tenderness of what does appear in this poem compels the heart to reimagine the prisoner of war.

The book is anchored by “Personal Effects,” a poem where Sharif elegizes her uncle who’s life was lost in the Iraq-Iran conflict. In this poem, she interrogates the way photographs skew remembrance. It begins, “I place a photograph of my uncle on my computer desktop, which means I learn to ignore it.” The poem pans, from that point, taking in the panoramic effects of decades of conflicts in Iraq and Iran—how military offensives reach into a family and blow it apart. About a photo of her uncle, Sharif writes,

it was his bare toes

that made me cry

because I realized then he had toes

and because dusted in the white

desert sand they looked

like a corpse’s toes

The book builds toward this moment of gutting simplicity. Solmaz Sharif shows her readers what a poem can do—break apart the world with a single image of bare feet.

What have you read lately that broke your world apart?