Discussed in this essay: Customs, by Solmaz Sharif. Graywolf Press, 2022. 72 pages.
In the immediate aftermath of spectacular violence, a poem often goes viral on social media. When Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, people posted excerpts from Danez Smith’s “summer, somewhere.” Israel bombed Gaza in May of 2021 and Noor Hindi’s “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” proliferated on Twitter timelines. While Russia invaded Ukraine, Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War” seemed, somehow, to be everywhere. Sharing a poem is obviously a profoundly inadequate response to violence. And as the tally of likes and shares mounts, the insufficiency of the gesture only deepens. At a certain point, the smooth, bloated we congregating around the verses in the no-place of social media begins to feel like a willful obfuscation of the social landscape, whose jagged topography underwrites the brutality that prompted the sharing in the first place. On social media, refusal and collusion can speak in a single voice. And the poem—as well as the poet, whether they like it or not—accrues something in this conflation.
Solmaz Sharif wrestles with the ways that acclaim can become an imperial enclosure; I once heard her say, “I try to write poems that make it impossible to applaud afterward.” Reaching toward forms of relation that are not fully apprehensible from life in the metropole, her work rejects the embrace of any we for whom sharing is an uncomplicated act. In her 2016 debut collection, Look, Sharif—who was born in Istanbul to Iranian parents and grew up in the United States—refused American civil rituals of polite consensus and exposed the ways state violence takes place in and through language. Reappropriating terms from the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, where ordinary English is redefined in service of statecraft, Sharif mapped empire’s brutal trespasses. These words appear in the poems in capital letters, simultaneously disrupting and constructing scenes—often intimate and domestic. In the title poem, for example, the DoD’s definition of “look” (“a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence”) jostles the ordinary one: “Let me LOOK at you. // Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.” As the eerie convergence between the militarized and the quotidian agitates the language, any pretense of neutral description falls away. Reading these poems, it is impossible to sustain the fiction of a relationship—including a readership—wholly bracketed from the world empire has made.
If, as Sharif wrote in her 2014 essay “A Poetry of Proximity,” “language is we realized,” then Look elucidates the fissures in our we like the dark web disrupting the bright bone in an X-ray image of a fractured leg. In a conversation with the poet Alina Stefanescu, Sharif described the book as “diagnostic”: “I point to the intolerable, and I name it as intolerable. And the idea is to keep doing that until we can’t take it anymore and we all agree we must change it.” In her new collection, Customs, Sharif remains concerned with the violence of an imperial we—its demands and foreclosures, its harms of definitive exclusion as well as contingent inclusion. But in these poems, Sharif turns away from describing what is and toward the pull of what might be: “For me,” she explains, “the why of poetry [is] . . . no longer the conditions that make revolution inevitable, but what’s waiting for us on the other side.” An unstable social arrangement both animates and vexes this why: If we names those who comprise a violent present, what does it mean to imagine an us on revolution’s other side?
In Customs, a disjunctive presence rattles the social—a lyric I, alienated in the imperial center and far from the life she should have lived. Out of sync with her surroundings, the speaker wields the perceptive powers estrangement grants. In “America,” a thin, brief poem printed twice (once at the collection’s opening and again on the back cover, where blurbs might otherwise be), Sharif foregrounds the distortions of the frame obscured by the common sense of nationalist logics:
Like the discord between the speaker and the country in which she finds herself, the misalignment between the poem’s line and syntax destabilizes the assertion of a single, uncontested meaning. As the scholar Kamran Javadizadeh points out, “enjambments betray the ambivalence of these declarations. The poem’s simple first sentence—‘I had / to.’—might at first, because of the line break, imply that this ‘I’ is making a statement about what, at some undefined point in the past, she possessed: I had a home, I had a family.” But the sentence’s conclusion on the next line swiftly displaces those possessive possibilities. “Had,” it turns out, does not enrich the speaker; it describes her subjection. Still, the negation of that original possibility does not make it disappear. Instead, loosed from the constraints of denotation, had becomes unwieldy: The loss the speaker is sentenced to is haunted by the promise—or is it the memory?—of ownership. The polysemic surplus pulls me deeper until the chiastic ending cuts off the sense of possibility by reiterating the repressive enclosures of nationalist pedagogy: “I learned / it. I / had to.”
A later poem picks up this thread of imperial instruction in a different site; each line of “Learning Persian” is a transliteration of a word—“ahm-pee-ree-ah-lizm / doh-see-eh / oh-toh-ree-te”—that has entered Farsi from a European language. An exilic subject seeking to reconnect with her mother tongue will find any fantasy of pure return contaminated by empire’s global reach: “No crueler word than return. / No greater lie. // The gates may open but to return. / More gates were built inside,” Sharif writes in “Without Which,” a long poem in the book’s second section. These mutual imbrications map the violent contours of the we in the imperial world at large. After all, occupation, too, is a kind of sharing. Even as they seek a radically transformative sociality, Sharif’s poems, which are written in English and published in the United States, circulate among a readership bound up with the we of empire. In her conversation with Stefanescu, Sharif prefaces a story about a political prisoner by saying, “I don’t know if I want to share this”; I hear the echo of this uncertainty through the poems as well.
An exilic subject seeking to reconnect with her mother tongue will find any fantasy of pure return contaminated by empire’s global reach.
And yet, as Sharif put it in a discussion with the poet Douglas Kearney: “Language is desire enacted: I want to tell you something.” The fact that we have a book to hold means the want outweighed the doubt—but attunement to the risks of desire, even in its most minor forms, persists. “Like, I’ve decided, // is the cruelest word,” Sharif writes in “Without Which.” It is not only preferences themselves that can be cruel, but moreover, the structures that ensure their uneven implications. For the customs officer who interrogates the speaker upon her return to the US in the poem “He, Too,” it is his position as a representative of the state that emboldens him to flaunt his proclivities and compels the speaker to listen:
What do you teach?
I hate poetry, the officer says.
I only like writing
where you can make an argument.
Anything he asks, I must answer.
This, too, he likes.
Like bears an additional cruelty—of substitution that elides difference. “This is just like a planetarium,” the speaker thinks in “Planetarium” as the night sky is cut by “a boom that is not thunder / a flash that is not lightning” emanating from a nearby air force base. And in “Persistence of Vision: Televised Conference,” a woman whose daughter is in prison tells the speaker, “You are like a daughter / to me.”
Like, after all, is not is. Sharif is especially attentive to one structure that confers meaning on the distance between the two: empathy. Like simile, empathy relies on a false premise of commensurability that suppresses recognition of discrepant vulnerabilities. Think of empathy’s dominant idiom: “I feel for her”—flaunting the I’s benevolent sentience while promising her nothing except the substitution of subjectivity. Or, as Sharif writes in “Dear Aleph,” the second of three poems by that name: “Empathy means // laying yourself down / in someone else’s chalklines // and snapping a photo.”
Empathy does not simply reflect existing power differentials; it shores them up. “Dear Aleph,” continues: “Oh, Mrs. Evans, / you’re such a wonderful woman, // said, supposedly, Ethel Rosenberg / to the woman who walked her // to the chair. / It was empathy on Evans’s part.” In Carceral Capitalism, poet and scholar Jackie Wang elaborates on empathy as a schema that grounds the toothless politics of the liberal order: “Within this framework, empathy can be established only when a person meets the standard of authentic victimhood and moral purity . . . Social, political, cultural, and legal recognition happens only when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized, and made unthreatening.” Put differently: Empathy dictates the terms of entry. In this way, empathy—“a requirement of statehood,” as Sharif writes—is not unlike customs.
In the customs hall, the speaker of “He, Too” continues to navigate the encounter with the poetry-hating officer:
I don’t tell him
he will be in a poem
where the argument will be
I place him here, puffy,
pink, ringed in plexi, pleased
with his own wit
and spittle. Saving the argument
I am let in
I am let in until
The poem ends there, with the fragment opening onto the blank field of the page. The syntax suggests that what follows the dangling preposition would name the trespass that breaches America’s limit of conditional inclusion; where the conditions are not met, power denies entry. Has the speaker, posing a threat to the order of things, been disappeared along with her language? Or perhaps, just as the speaker withheld from the officer her intentions to render him in the genre he scorns, she has now turned away from the reader as well. I don’t know if I want to share this.
A readership is a risky thing. One might write seeking an insurgent we to sharpen the blade and find that a reformist we arrives to build a padded room. One might, as Sharif has done, write a book diagnosing the harms of nationalist violence and find it shortlisted for the National Book Award. “Poets convinced they are ringmaster / when it is with big brooms and bins, in fact, / they enter to clear the elephant scat,” she writes in “Patronage.” Language is insufficient to forge an otherwise when the architecture of its dissemination remains uninterrogated; no matter what you say while jumping through a hoop, your words become part of the trick.
A readership is a risky thing. One might write seeking an insurgent we to sharpen the blade and find that a reformist we arrives to build a padded room.
In the face of the impossible task of contesting the violences of language from the inside, Sharif presses the boundaries of the possible, recording and disrupting the process by which the borders of the social are produced and patrolled. The poem “Social Skills Training” opens, “Studies suggest How may I help you officer? is the single most disarming thing to say and not What’s the problem?” and unfurls in a series of sentences that reiterate the construction (“Studies suggest . . . Studies show . . . Studies recommend . . .” ). Drawing on varied registers of knowledge that contribute to group formation, it weaves together social science, white feminism, and the speaker’s relationship with her own mother. The poem closes, “studies suggest Solmaz, have you thanked your executioner today?” This disjunctive syntax—where the question interrupts the declarative current of the repeated phrase—is a dropped stitch; what appeared seamless suddenly feels like it might, with a bit of force, begin to unravel, and I am differently attuned to the mechanics of its construction. Now I see how the stuttering repetition, by short-circuiting the teleological temporality the study both draws on and perpetuates, underscores the coercive structure of the supposedly neutral form. The study purports to be descriptive, plainly portraying a phenomenon as it exists in the world, but it’s actually conscriptive, enrolling readers in a vision of the future and arranging them in a configuration that serves that vision.
The scholar Jasbir Puar calls this sleight of hand, in which the future is laid out as an inevitable extension of the present in order to obscure the possibility of an otherwise, “the prehensive.” In The Right to Maim, she writes:
The prehensive is narratively produced as if this thing is happening to us, when indeed, we made it happen . . . Through prehensive time, it is not only that the terms of futurity are already dictated in the present but also the terms of the present are dictated through the containment of the terms of the future, in an effort to keep the present in line with one version of the future that is desired . . . That is to say, we cannot get out of the present because we are tethered to the desired future.
How, then, to derail the state’s narrative drive? The poet June Jordan, one of Sharif’s touchstones, said, “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” But what does it mean to tell the truth when the state scripts facts—refusing to recognize knowledge that does not meet its terms of entry—and when reporting reiterates, carrying the current order of things into the future? The real is a reproductive structure; the fact is checked by confirming the world as it exists. Solmaz Sharif’s parents left Iran before she was born, a biographer might write. But what connections does this narrative obscure? What intelligences are quieted in the name of the real? How to perceive what the frame excludes—or at least, to stay alert to the presence of a frame and that it excludes? And how, anyway, could one live there, inside the frugal and gray of fact? How does one tell a truth in which one can meet one’s life?
The speaker in Customs is often drained by the frames she must move through, but throughout the book, there are glimpses of an enlivening we convening despite imperial borders. In “Visa,” the speaker waits in an international terminal for a loved one to exit customs. Watching as the beloved turns “from shadow to shape to gait,” the speaker, too, is transformed, seeing her own “imagined life come to life and approach, briefly, me.” The railing at the exit that keeps the speaker from moving toward her loved one (a railing which, the speaker notes, “domestic terminals do not have”) reoccurs in the entry into English, which cordons off tenses—Farsi’s “is-was, the residue of it over the clear bulb of your eye” disclaimed by American logics that insistently hold the past at bay. Messing the brutal orders of American grammar is a condition for finding a way toward what empire would keep distant. In “An Otherwise,” the long final poem in which the speaker weaves her mother’s childhood in Iran together with her own in the West, she says, in response to the question “What did you leave behind?”: “We wanted // to be asked / of these things. // To tell of them / was to live // again.” For the exile, the is-was is a state of living, of becoming; it is the place where the past meets the present, not as a kind of calcified nostalgia, but as dynamic entanglement with the persistent counterfactual—what should have been. It is also a record of desire: We want to be together.
Messing the brutal orders of American grammar is a condition for finding a way toward what empire would keep distant.
Customs is threaded with these desires for gathering. When the reader enters the collection, after passing through the narrow frame of “America,” they encounter the first of the “Dear Aleph” epistolary poems—each observing the metropole’s cruelties and addressing a you with whom a correspondence seems to be developing, largely out of view of the reader. The untitled penultimate poem unfolds as a dialogue between two unnamed speakers. I imagine it as the mother and daughter of “An Otherwise,” briefly finding each other across an unbreachable distance:
Does yours have a landscape?
Because mine has a landscape.
—It is a path of small and sharp stone and it is lined with cypresses.
And are there other paths that you are aware of?
—One for each of us.
And are you waving?
—We will never see each other.
And are you aware of the waving?
Here, after all, is what Customs offers: the possibility of return—not as one would return to a place (an impossible feat, since place and time are always entwined), but as one would return a wave, or a letter. In an essay on Virginia Woolf’s letters, Kamran Javadizadeh muses:
If I write you a letter today, my words will have to be legible to you days from now. Our friendship will have to stretch to accommodate this asynchrony. Though the present tense of my letter will exist for you nowhere but in its pages, the stitching together of my present with yours will pull us both out of our lives, however briefly, and into a notional but shared time. Asynchrony becomes, in letter writing, its own form of intimacy.
The intimacy of asynchrony is also an exilic intimacy—a syncopated we out of linear time. A wave, a letter, a poem, acknowledges the distances and yet hopes, anyway. I want to tell you something.