I’m always amazed when finding out that a poetry collection I’m in love with is a debut. I spend a lot of time on this blog promoting debuts because so many of them are armed with the social and political fervor that makes reading poetry an act of resistance. 2017 is the year poetry and art will save us, and Solmaz Sharif’s collection Look reminded me why. At a time when we are desensitized to cruelty, finding truth and humanity is difficult. Look demands our attention, and holds us accountable for our nation’s brutality. In Look, Sharif uses the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to craft poems that alarm and dismantle. These are poems that take the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and make this war into something personal. This collection forces us to bear witness, and to understand the importance of our words and the way we use language.
In the poem “Desired Appreciation” the speaker confronts her own “learned helplessness:” “Am I grateful to be here? Someone eventually asks / If I love this country” (lines 8-9). What I find interesting about this poem is that the speaker protests her own obedience to America, and starts the poem off by arguing against the harmlessness of her Muses’ poetry. It makes a direct statement towards arts’ responsibility to challenge injustice. It also speaks for immigrants who oftentimes do not vocalize their disagreement against this country for fear of appearing unpatriotic in a place where they already feel they are unwelcome.
Sharif’s brilliant use of the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms throughout Look also calls for celebration. Her creative manipulation of these words can be seen in the poem “Safe House:” “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 too much space” (lines 1-3). By using these words, Sharif strips them of their power, making the political personal.
To say that Look is an important collection would be an understatement. It’s a powerful declaration against complacency: “I place a photograph of my uncle on my desktop computer, which means I learn to ignore it” (“Personal Effects”).
Buy Look here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Graywolf Press: “Graywolf Press is a leading independent publisher committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature. We champion outstanding writers at all stages of their careers to ensure that diverse voices can be heard in a crowded marketplace.”*
(photo of Look courtesy of Graywolf Press)