In an interview in the Kenyon Review in 2103, the poet Solmaz Sharif was asked: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
“…I’m surprised to find that in addition to empathy, my writing requires a callousness. Maybe this is the nature of the material I immerse myself in—mostly testimony of warfare and imprisonment. Maybe this is the nature of the craft—that putting language, putting
music first requires a kind of violence.”
Every poem is an action.
Every action is political.
Every poem is political.
A lover, once: You can’t say every action is political.
Then the word political loses all meaning.
He added: What is political about this moment?
I was washing his dishes. I had left the water running.
Solmaz Sharif, the daughter of Iranian parents, was born in Istanbul, as she describes it, “en route out of the country, out of Iran. We went to Texas, then we went to Alabama, then we finally ended up in Southern California. We moved around a little bit there. It’s been a long route.”
In the 2013 Kenyon Review interview Sharif explained a major project: “I’ve been working on a poetic rewrite of the US Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms for several years now. My own experience as an Iranian born in Turkey beneath the long shadow of the Iran-Iraq War has always been an impetus behind this project. As an Iranian abroad, this experience was quintessentially American—the warfare was happening over there. Less American, perhaps, was being from the there. Regardless, the being from an elsewhere forced me to cultivate an image, as many have, of the home they left. An imagined place. This imagination-building happened to coincide with a war that killed 1,000,000 people. My father’s brother, a draftee, was one of those killed, shortly before I was born.”
Even after years of seeing and reading news reports and stories about the loss and devastation caused by cycles of war and terrorism in the Middle East, and the cost of reactionary policies in Europe and the Americas, her imagination and passion will take you into realities that sear your eyes and make you rethink what you believed you knew. There’s nothing comfortable about Sharif’s poetry, but her gift for the stark and telling detail will stick in your mind long after the pretty images of other writers have faded.
Lanat Abad / The Place of the Damned
this mangy plot where
only mothers still come,
only mothers guard the nameless plots
and then sparingly
Peepholes burnt through the metal doors
of their solitary cells,
just large enough
for three fingers to curl out
for a lemon to pass through
for an ear to be held against
for one eye then the other
to regard the hallway
to regard the cell and inmate
peepholes without a lens
so when the guard comes to inspect me,
I inspect him.
Touch me, he said.
And through that opening
According to a 2004 British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS) report on the ethnic cleansing of Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority in the Al-Ahwaz region, their lands have been confiscated, the people forcibly relocated, or ‘disappeared’ — imprisoned, or executed and buried in mass graves in a place the government “calls ‘Lanat Abad’, the place of the ‘damned people’… The bodies do not stay long in the unmarked graves, before they are dug up and eaten by dogs.”
It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me.
Whereas Well, if I were from your culture, living in this country,
said the man outside the 2004 Republican National
Convention, I would put up with that for this country;
Whereas I felt the need to clarify: You would put up with
TORTURE, you mean and he proclaimed: Yes;
Whereas what is your life;
Whereas years after they LOOK down from their jets
and declare my mother’s Abadan block PROBABLY
DESTROYED, we walked by the villas, the faces
of buildings torn off into dioramas, and recorded it
on a hand-held camcorder and I said That’s a gun as I
trained the lens on a rusting GUN-TYPE WEAPON and
That’s Iraq as I zoomed over the river;
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 federal judge at the sentencing hearing said
I want to make sure I pronounce the defendant’s name
Whereas this lover would pronounce my name and call me
Exquisite and LAY the floor lamp across the floor so that
we would not see each other by DIRECT ILLUMINATION,
softening even the light;
Whereas the lover made my heat rise, rise so that if heat
sensors were trained on me, they could read
my THERMAL SHADOW through the roof and through
Whereas you know we ran into like groups like mass executions.
w/ hands tied behind their backs. and everybody shot
in the head side by side. its not like seeing a dead body walking
to the grocery store here. its not like that. its iraq you know
its iraq. its kinda like acceptable to see that there and not—it
was kinda like seeing a dead dog or a dead cat laying—;
Whereas I thought if he would LOOK at my exquisite face
or my father’s, he would reconsider;
Whereas You mean I should be sent MISSING because of my family
name? and he answered Yes. That’s exactly what I mean,
adding that his wife helped draft the PATRIOT Act;
Whereas the federal judge wanted to be sure he was
pronouncing the defendant’s name correctly and said he
had read all the exhibits, which included the letter I
wrote to cast the defendant in a loving light;
Whereas today we celebrate things like his transfer to a
detention center closer to home;
Whereas his son has moved across the country;
Whereas I made nothing happen;
Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is
your life? It is even a THERMAL SHADOW, it appears
so little, and then vanishes from the screen;
Whereas I cannot control my own heat and it can take
as long as 16 seconds between the trigger, the Hellfire
missile, and A dog, they will answer themselves;
Whereas A dog, they will say: Now, therefore,
Let it matter what we call a thing.
Let it be the exquisite face for at least 16 seconds.
Let me LOOK at you.
Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.
Look is the title poem of Sharif’s first published poetry collection (2016). She takes the chillingly mundane and obfuscating terminology used by the U.S. Department of Defense and strips away any ambiguity about what the words really mean, then adds her definitions for this deadly vocabulary.
She gives as an example one of the meanings given in the DOD dictionary for LOOK: “In mine warfare the moment a mine is receptive of an influence,” which translates as the moment somebody steps on a landmine and it detonates.
In this poem, she uses the DOD’s double-edged words to make the connection between sex and violence, which frequently collide, not only in far-off war zones, but all over America.
Special Events for Homeland Security
Three pulsing floors, one night to a point of no return.
Leave your DOLLY at home—this is no INNOCENT PASSAGE. Ladies, bring your KILL BOXes. Boys, your HUNG WEAPONs. Whether you’re PASSIVE or on the HUNTER TRACK, there’s….. a room for you. Push WARHEAD MATING to the THRESHOLD OF ACCEPTABILITY in our exclusive MAN SPACE with over two-dozen HEIGHT HOLEs and sluts in READY POSITION. Eat until you damn near …..CANNIBALIZE. There’s nothing you CANNOT OBSERVE. We ask you follow our TWO-PERSON RULE rule in restricted areas. Otherwise, get your SIMULTANEOUS ENGAGEMENT on. Please come with a safe PASSWORD and a NICKNAME, we’ll provide PENETRATION AIDS and RESTRAINTS. Guaranteed to make your SPREADER BAR SWELL.
Solmaz Sharif on why she wrote Look:
“…I really thought that this moment in American history needed historical protest in literary form. Just to say that there were people—and I’m not the only one, obviously—who objected and continue to object. I hope that’s what my book will do.”
Sources and Further Reading
- “Every poem is an action” — http://www.thevolta.org/ewc28-ssharif-p1.html
- “Lanat Abad / The Place of the Damned” — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/249146
- “Look” — http://www.pen.org/poetry/look
- “Special Events for Homeland Security” — http://sinkreview.org/sink-7/special-events-for-homeland-security/
Selected Online Publications — http://solmazsharif.com/poems/
- “Civilization Spurns the Leopard” and “Force Visibility” at Granta
- “Exile Elegy” at Lit Hub
- “Desired Appreciation” at Kenyon Review
- “Vulnerability Study” at Poetry Magazine
- “Perception Management: An Abridged List of Operations” at The New Republic
- “Look at PEN America
- “Safe House” at Boston Review
- “lay” at DIAGRAM
- “Reaching Guantanamo” at Paper Bag
- “Suitcases” and “Theater” at PBS’s Tehran Bureau
- “Special Events for Homeland Security” and “dear Intelligence Journal” at Sink Review
- “Drone” at Witness
Selected Print Publications — http://solmazsharif.com/poems/
- Personal Effects, Kenyon Review
- Break-up, Black Warrior Review
- Two poems, Gulf Coast
- Three poems, jubilat
- Suitcases, The Forbidden
- Your Style, Spaces Between Us
- My Father’s Shoes, A World Between
The KR Conversations – http://www.kenyonreview.org/conversation/solmaz-sharif/
- Dishes in sink
- Iranian ceiling detail, circa 1870
- Photo of Solmaz Sharif
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud