Solmaz Sharif

Graywolf, 2016

A word recalls the sum of its histories. In her debut collection LOOK, Solmaz Sharif adopts words and phrases from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, refashioning language to think through its strategic violence. Each borrowed word, rendered in all-caps, is haunted by its provenance. In “SAFE HOUSE,” the speaker recalls “this is the beginning of my / SCRIBING life: repetition and change.” The military’s strategic euphemisms, repeated, placed under distinct pressure, depict the human cost of war.

One of LOOK’s primary concerns is the inherent subjectivity of language. From line to line, syntactic subjects shift, forcing the distancing jargon of war into the intimate territory of shared grief. A nebulous, overpowering “they” may, in its widespread actions, subsume any clearly defined yet weaker “we,” “you,” or “I.”

I’m now old enough to hear:
someone has to identify and
someone removes the shrapnel
and someone says not a scratch
when they pulled you out the fridge

Each “someone” must be an “I” and a “you.” The “you” in the final line above addresses the poet-speaker’s uncle, her “Amoo,/ my dear COLLATERAL DAMAGE” who was killed in the Iran-Iraq War. The “someone” who “has to identify” the body, then, is a member of the speaker’s family with whom grief will remain. Here, Sharif’s agility with shifting subjects turns a political meditation into an intimate apostrophe.

“DISTANCE / is a funny drug,” Sharif writes in “BREAK-UP”. Geographic distance has skewed Americans’ view of missions carried out by remote-piloted drones and long-range missiles. There’s little footage on YouTube, where it’s much easier to find teary recordings of American soldiers surprising their families on return from war—all of which Sharif addresses in her examination of witness.

In “Personal Effects,” one of the two striking long poems that conclude LOOK, the speaker looks at old photographs as a window into her uncle’s life and death. “I place a photograph of my uncle on my computer desktop, which means I learn to ignore it,” she writes. This inspiration cues an archival ekphrasis. The poem’s sections justify right and left, higher and lower on the page, in forms like wikis, definitions, and bulleted lists to make gestures toward a monumental loss, transforming America’s clandestine wars into domestic presence:

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