“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation,” wrote Angela Carter, the English novelist, short story writer, and journalist. The pronouncement feels both timeless, applicable to so many periods throughout history, and particularly and bitterly true now—a month into Donald Trump’s presidency and the leadership of an administration that defiantly uses language in order to sow seeds of fear, spread hatred and bigotry, fan the flames of white nationalism, and suppress free speech. These days it has been easy to view language as the instrument of domination when every dawn seems to bring increasingly normalized hate speech, more tweets stamped with the verbal patterns of fascism, more carefully coded twists of the tongue, more “alternative facts”—each designed to erode our confidence in language as a means of preserving truth and accountability. These days it has been difficult, even for writers, to remember that language is also the instrument of liberation. But we are only in the beginning stages of a long fight, and so we must call on language to offer us hope. We must be willing to turn language upon itself in order to liberate one another and ourselves. And there are few books as equipped to help us in this endeavor as Solmaz Sharif’s debut poetry collection, Look.
A finalist for the 2016 National Book Award, Look engages the power of language—and the specific notion that both domination and liberation can be held simultaneously in the same set of syllables, the same exact breath—in brilliant and unflinching fashion. Employing the vocabulary of the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Sharif surrounds the reader with terms such “look,” “lay,” “early warning,” “dolly,” “permanent echo,” “friend,” “cannibalize,” “destroyed,” “health threat,” “casualty,” “distressed person,” “distance,” and “fire.” These terms are almost entirely familiar to us; we know them (or think we know them) for their daily, often intimate, meanings. But these same words and phrases also carry militarized and institutionalized definitions of which we have been, up until now, largely unaware. In this sense, they serve a dual purpose: to normalize atrocity by draping it in a blanket of familiar and sterile language, while simultaneously obfuscating our reactions to violence by stretching the blanket so widely across disparate contexts that it starts to tear.
Sharif’s reworking of military language is thus necessarily multifaceted and complex. Her approach changes from poem to poem so that we can never be completely sure of the ground on which we stand, never fall into the comforting lull of habit. Sometimes terms appear in flooding lists—as in “Perception Management,” a prose poem described in a sub-titular note as “an abridged list of operations”: “ROCK REAPER · DEMON DIGGER · RAIDER HARVEST · IRON JUSTICE · UNITED FIST”—words falling like a barrage of bombs. In these poems, it seems we are meant to be inundated, overwhelmed; to experience the force of weaponized language used against us; to feel the invisibility and powerless that such institutionalized language is intended to sustain.
At other times Sharif experiments with disrupted syntax and startling spacing of words on the page in order to bring silence to the forefront, allowing it its own voice. In the epistolary poem “Reaching Guantanamo,” composed of seven letters each beginning, “Dear Salim,” words and portions of sentences are redacted, as if by prison security or government censorship. The resulting syntactic and visual ruptures speak as loudly, perhaps louder, than the words left on the page. Silence is recreated not just as a palpable absence, but as its own powerful language:
At the store they brought
already, bruised on the
but still juicy. I pitted sour
all day, the newspaper
went with their juice. I save you
jars of preserves for your return.
some plums, too. I haven’t opened
a since they
you. can’t stand all those
, all those teeth. Or maybe
the , how they stain upholstery like
. I hope I don’t make you me.
I hope they allow you some .
Here silence disrupts and shifts the mundane task of preparing fruit into jam. Redaction causes the boundaries of bodies and selves to blur both into one another and into the objects they touch. The letter-writer’s body pits sour. Teeth, disembodied, threaten. The line “I hope they don’t make you me.” echoes simultaneously with menace and with tenderness, with distance and proximity.
More than anything, Look’s greatest power seems to lie in Sharif’s deft ability to twist in and out of intimacy, using the personal as a point of contrast against history and its impersonal and institutional procedures of violence—a single moment distilled until it becomes a searing lens. She juxtaposes the military meanings of words against everyday definitions in order to jar and unnerve the reader, to push us out of the safety of presupposed contexts and toward the need for real human connection and accountability, the very thing these terms are designed to gloss over and sterilize. In the opening titular poem, “Look,” for example, she contrasts the military definition of the word (“a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence”) against the more human definition encapsulated by a lover’s gaze: “Exquisite a lover called me,” until the two versions are brought powerfully together in the poem’s culminating lines:
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.
Of course, such radical work is no simple task and cannot be accomplished without great sacrifice. “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made // of our language,” Sharif writes in “Personal Effects,” a long, fragmented, and achingly beautiful elegy for her uncle, Amoo, who was killed in the Iran-Iraq war. But Look—which is nothing if not unflinching—is a wager born of necessity. Always the costs of its undertaking falls short against the costs of continued reticence. For, as Sharif puts it in “Desired Appreciation,” “I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious. / I’ve learned the doctors leaned of learned helplessness / By shocking dogs. Eventually we give things up.” And in her words we hear the rye and scathing humor that runs through her poems like a deep vein—the product of a speaker whose eye is already weary but whose tongue that has been sharpened to her task over generations, honed by the forced cadences of silence. We hear a song that is both lullaby and battle cry, a song that has no end: “we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter,” she tells us in the book’s final lines,” I am signing to her still.”
Julia Bouwsma is the author of the poetry collection, Work by Bloodlight (Cider Press Review, 2017). She lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her poems and reviews can be found in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Muzzle, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, River Styx, and other journals. She is the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine, and the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Please send her book review submissions to [email protected].