Step gently on words such as “home” or “citizen” or even “body” with a foot born elsewhere and they combust. Place names are even more incendiary. What happens when we read BEIRUT or TEHRAN or SAIGON while sitting at a cafe in Santa Monica?
This is war’s lexicon. It incorporates and redefines, especially by naming. In the U.S., recent Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Nguyen reminds us, we know the conflict as the Vietnam War; in Saigon, they call it the American War.
If writers must return history to human scale, the last decade of American life has proved just how necessary their linguistic re-engineering will be, even within our borders. In “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine showed it was possible to rescue the suffering of black bodies from spectacle if we questioned how we watched and from where.
Meanwhile, a new generation of poets — all descendants of the American Empire — have undertaken a project similar to Rankine’s on two fronts: retelling the myth of their being, and reclaiming language which has attempted to claim them.
Two extraordinary debut collections in 2016 have lighted the way for this revolution. Ocean Vuong’s “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” spins tales of the poet’s life — born on a rice farm, the grandchild of an American soldier and a Vietnamese farm girl. He tosses the myths into orbit with the light-fingered panache of a reincarnated Frank O’Hara. You have to wonder, reading it, if Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” has finally found its ecstatic textbook.
Meanwhile, this month, Solmaz Sharif — a poet of Iranian decent born in Turkey and educated in America who now teaches at Stanford — publishes her debut, “Look,” a startling sequence of poems built from phrases out of the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, beginning with the word in its title.
“Look,” that lexicon tells us, in mine warfare, is “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of influence.”
The period “Look” claims as its own influence begins with the Iran-Iraq War, a conflict stoked by the U.S., claiming over 1 million lives, including the poet’s uncle. Sharif elegizes him beautifully in the book’s final sequence. He is her muse and a form of beloved. She addresses him directly, knowing that if her words cannot bring him back, they might undo the collateral damage done to language by war. “Daily I sit/with the language/they’ve made/of our language,” she writes. “to NEUTRALIZE/the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS/like you.” And: “This album is a STOP-LOSS.”
“Look” builds up to this realization. Like all lyrics, it begins with the body. This might be one of the sexiest books ever made from the long fallout of war. “It matters what you call a thing,” Sharif writes in the title poem, “Exquisite a lover called me./Exquisite.” The poem tumbles forward from here, using the associative illogic of a John Ashbery verse, only here the vernacular tonal shifts and echolocated stress points are called attention to by the word “Whereas.”
Unlike Ashbery, Sharif needs her reader to pay attention to how language’s associations map themselves back onto her body. So she writes:
Whereas it could take as long as 16 seconds between
the trigger pulled in Las Vegas and the Hellfire missile
landing in Mazar-e-Sharif, after which they will ask
Did we hit a child? No. A dog. they will answer themselves;
Whereas the lover made my heat rise, rise so that if heat
censors were trained on me, they could read
my THERMAL SHADOW through the roof and through
As it telescopes in and out, “Look” performs through disassembly what Rankine’s “Citizen” achieved through juxtaposition: a repositioning of viewer and viewed. To maintain this effect, Sharif needs to keep jarring her reader’s word associations loose, and so her collection busily differentiates. There are itemized lists, descriptions of photographs, snatches of letters, imagined letters — censored, torn out phrases from news reports, and even, in one instance, a list of U.S. operation names in Iraq, stretching from WOLFHOUND FURY to the sinisterly ironic GLAD TIDINGS OF BENEVOLENCE.
Such a wide variety of shapes and syntaxes should feel disruptive. In some sense, they do, they’re meant to, but the cumulative effect of “Look” has a pleasing coherence in the mind’s eye. By simply placing words from the Defense dictionary in small caps, and deploying them in scenes of intimacy — adjacent to poems about the sexualization of military violence — Sharif has begun the process of renaturing them, putting them in the readers’ hands for examination. “America,” Sharif writes in a rare moment of oracular address, “ignore the window and look at your lap:/even your dinner napkins are on FIRE.”
As Sharif asks the reader to adjust their lens, she dramatizes the dilation of her own. She looks at home movies of her father, imagining what he must have felt, separated from his family for long stretches of time. Sharif looks at the history of California, where she lives, as a colonial text.
Most effectively, she interrogates her own long poetic gestation. “Until now, that I’ve reached my thirties:/All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless,” she writes in “Desired Appreciation,” a poem about citizenship and the yearning to please, to belong. “I feel like I must muzzle myself,” she recalls telling a psychiatrist, and suddenly the book in our hands vibrates all the more. If it his not clear then, it is now: This book is the unmuzzling.
Eventually Sharif’s montaging of Defense Department terms into her work has achieved its purpose (luckily, just one or two of the poems sound like anti-imperial Mad Libs). The end result is she has rebuilt the building of her language, and as she elegizes her uncle, phrases like CLOSED AREA and CELESTIAL GUIDANCE proceed from her contextual meaning rather than the other way around.
Working from a series of photographs her uncle carried at the front, and letters he wrote home, she imagines him, pays tribute to him, puts him back in his body. “What I see are your hands/peeling apples,” she writes in one of the sequence’s loving passages, “the skin curling/to the floor in one long unravel.”
Lyricism is so often over-used in poetry, but here Sharif deploys it perfectly; she heightens language to remember what was. In this fashion, “Look” creates an after-image similar to that of Robin Coste Lewis’ National Book Award-winning 2015 debut, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” with its meditation on the long aftermath of slavery and diaspora. Like that book, “Look” feels like a disassembled museum exhibit with the occluded stories — the ones not told — written into view. Look, it compels you to do, and you will.
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual, the latest issue of which — themed to family — publishes next month.
By Solmaz Sharif
Graywolf Press: 93 pp., $16 paper