Customs: Poems by Solmaz Sharif (Graywolf Press 2022)
All the Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran (Penguin Books 2022)
Earth Room by Rachel Mannheimer (Changes 2022)
Say we had a time capsule for the 2010s, and you could stash only one snippet of poetry in it. Something to stand for the decade, its stylistic and intellectual fashions, its new tropes and old tricks. Me, I’m picking the first sentence of Solmaz Sharif’s 2016 debut, Look: “It matters what you call a thing.”
At first glance, it’s unshowy, impersonal, out of time. A ghost of iambs taps underneath it, but it doesn’t announce itself as poetry; it’s more like a scientific law, positing some universal relation between things, names, and all the ways names matter. But as Look trains you in applying that law, its uses appear endless. It matters what you call what happens in bedrooms, at demonstrations, in courtrooms, on battlefields. Here, now—in a nation whose recent wars asked us to recite “enhanced interrogation” instead of calling torture by its name, after a decade in which pronouns mattered, dog whistles mattered, even saying which lives mattered mattered—it’s hard to think of anywhere Sharif’s law doesn’t apply. Look never lets you forget it, thanks to an ingenious self-imposed rule. Nearly every page draws its core lexicon, flagged with estranging small caps, from an official repository of euphemistic jargon: the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a supplement to standard English dictionaries compiled by the United States Department of Defense (itself a euphemism; before 1947, we had a Department of War). Even Sharif’s innocuous-looking title, a seeming synonym for the considerate squint of a lyric poem, houses an explosive meaning. Look, n.: “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.” With life on the line, Sharif rephrases her opening sentence into a plea: “Let it matter what we call a thing.” It had better matter. If not, why bother with poetry, that roundabout activity of calling things by truer, stranger names?
Customs, Sharif’s second book, is less a sequel to Look than a trek back to beginnings—familial, ancestral, cultural, linguistic. W. B. Yeats, another poet of methodical disillusionment, once described his earlier style as a coat “Covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies,” only to toss it aside, “For there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” Customs, too, is a dismantling: it sheds Look’s book-length constraint and any verbiage that looks, in retrospect, like “padding.” “I said what I meant,” Solmaz writes of her past work, “but I said it // in velvet. I said it in feathers.” In its opening short poems, Customs assembles a new, cushionless style from scratch. Born in Turkey to Iranian parents, now a United States citizen teaching in Arizona, Sharif opens Customs with “America,” a shiv-thin portrait of a land of opportunity and suffocating constraint. Compressing her personal American history into the three-word sentences of children’s books (say, “See Spot run,” “Sam I am”), Sharif straitjackets her sentences further inside two-word lines, chattery with dental t’s and d’s:
The return to rudiments continues in three epistolary poems, written from exile and mailed backward through time; all titled “Dear Aleph,” they address that earliest letter and our basic impulses to name and define. In one, Sharif traces the word “barbarians” to its sneering etymology: bar bar bar, the inhuman stammering with which the ancient Greeks imitated the speech of foreigners, including Persians. From that example, Sharif derives a general principle, a cruel corollary to Look’s first sentence: “We make them reveal / the brutes they are by the things / we make them name.” Without reclaiming the name, Sharif sides with the barbarians, the Philistines who saw their demonym sharpened into an insult, and the giants laid low by the brutish Davids: “I’ve known I am Goliath / if I am anything.”
I could keep going here, sketching a portrait of Sharif as a linguist or journalist whose medium just happens to be poetry—a role in which she is routinely cast by academics and reviewers. An even more limiting tendency is to see her, or any nonwhite poet in America, as a fascinating if unassimilable specimen. One contemporary descendant of the barbarian, Sharif muses, is the otherized poet, her readings received by polite audiences as bark bark bark:
Remember what you are to them.
Poodle, I said.
And remember what they are to you.
For me—and, I suspect, for the multitude of readers who anticipated Customs with a giddy devotion otherwise reserved for album drops and movie trailers—there’s no talking about her work without mentioning its intense feeling, no less vehement for being stalled inside a stalemate of ambivalences and internalized cross-purposes. Few documentarians of violence and dispossession would title a poem “Beauty,” after the beauty of the right phrase, the felicitous find: “Frugal musicality is how Kristeva describes depression’s speech.” And few poets would stamp their work with a word that mingles such revulsion with such ardor. Customs, for Sharif, means the customs officer “pleased // with his own wit / and spittle,” but also the homegrown customs we’d do anything to preserve; it means the “materialist mind” and its conversion of citizens into customers, but also the genuine care to which we can grow accustomed, when lucky.
How does Sharif transform the wishy-washiness of ambivalence into hard, crystalline art? Customs proves—and here, too, she is representative of her generation and its thankfully broadening canon—how much she has learned from the mixed feelings and conflicted testaments of modern Black poets: foremost June Jordan, in whose Poetry for the People program Sharif studied and taught, but also Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Harryette Mullen. From Audre Lorde’s warning that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Sharif carves out the title for her book’s unforgettable centerpiece. A litany of forty-three actions, “The Master’s House” leaps from scene to scene, gesture to gesture, as if every line were a PowerPoint slide:
To wave from the porch
To let go of the grudge
To recall Ethel Rosenberg’s green polka-dotted dress
The infinitive verbs—to X, abstractedly, unmoored from tense or person—recall a to-do list, but Sharif’s progress on that list is uncertain: Have all these entries been checked off? If so, how often, and how willingly? That grammatical uncertainty rhymes with the inertia of early adulthood and, more acutely, an exile’s unsettlement: “To find yourself at thirty-three at a vast expanse with nary a papyrus of guidance, with nary a voice, a muse, a model / To finally admit out loud then, I want to go home.” There’s no home for her amid the ruling class’s comforts, here in the Master’s House. At worst, it is her detention center; at best, it is “my filmdom,” the institution that constantly surveils her and that Sharif meticulously records in turn.
Is that enough, to record? “To eye the master’s bone china,” then “pour diuretic in his coffee and think this erosive to the state”: is that dismantling? Is it dismantling to take revenge on an ex, “a banker, a lapsed Marxist,” by fantasizing “publishing a poem in the New Yorker eviscerating his little need”—or is that one more decoration on the Master’s terms? The poem doesn’t arrive at firm answers; it’s too caught up in a search for some new homeland, or home’s bare minimum, a place to rest in peace: