Solmaz Sharif Refuses to Fill in the Gaps

The title of Solmaz Sharif’s second book of poems, “Customs” (Graywolf), evokes the extended “if” of someone enmeshed in the sadistic bureaucracy of American immigration, a person at the mercy of an “officer deciding by blood sugar, last blow job received, and relative level of disdain for vermin” who belongs and who does not. Anyone whose presence is conditional knows that a time will come when the conditions will not be met. To be let in, as Sharif—who was born in Turkey to Iranian parents and is a naturalized citizen of the United States—writes, is inevitably to be “let in until.” In these poems, the ostensible clarity of borders and checkpoints gives way to a terrain of fundamental uncertainty, a geography of elusive thresholds, delayed arrivals, and impossible returns.

Look,” Sharif’s début collection and a finalist for a 2016 National Book Award, appropriated vocabulary from the U.S. Department of Defense’s “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms,” in order to flay euphemism from imperial atrocity. “According to most / definitions, I have never / been at war,” Sharif writes. “According to mine, / most of my life / spent there.” Like “Customs,” “Look” dramatizes the consciousness of a subject who is also a suspect, an enemy of the state in the state’s eyes—and in her own. “I feel like I must muzzle myself,” the poet confesses. “So you feel dangerous?” her psychiatrist asks. “Yes.” Poetry can bite, hard.

In “Customs,” Sharif’s old self now seems not dangerous enough: “I said what I meant / but I said it // in velvet.” She might be the poet most lauded by the American poetry establishment who most obviously loathes the American poetry establishment, where writers are “convinced they are ringmaster / when it is with big brooms and bins, in fact / they enter to clear the elephant scat.” Their offense is in being both profoundly cynical—they knowingly participate in the circus—and deeply delusional: they think they can control the performance, but end up shovelling shit. Sharif spurns the charade. Rejecting the injunction to bear witness, she displays a thrilling contempt for literature’s vaunted ability to elicit empathy, which means only “laying yourself down / in someone else’s chalklines // and snapping a photo.” For Sharif, the chalk lines around a body, like the borderlines around a body politic, are another boundary not to be trusted; the contours of personal experience can’t describe, literally or literarily, the truth of a trauma.

But, if lines are treacherous, then what is poetry made of? “It is very / private / to be in another’s / syntax,” Sharif warns. The poet’s space can be usurped by a reader; her lines will, inevitably, be crossed. June Jordan, whom Sharif has credited as a model, describes writing “toward a personal semantics” as a vital protection—refusing to “take somebody’s word” and instead choosing her own. The poems in “Customs,” though neither baroque nor esoteric in vocabulary, seem similarly encoded. Sharif’s lines are interrupted or involuted, and fragments and fissures fill the pages. In a poem called “The End of Exile,” Sharif wanders her ancestral city and hears a man selling something she doesn’t have a word for: “this thing: a without which // I cannot name. // Without which is my life.” A preposition becomes a noun, because the gap between languages has become an object itself. An absence, when left unfilled, turns into yet another barrier.

In “Without Which,” one of two long poems in the collection, Sharif takes this phrase and applies even more pressure:

Of is the thing without which
I would not be.


Of which I am without
or away from.
I am without the kingdom


and thus of it.

I am—
even when inside the kingdom—


These lines are littered with prepositions, as if the poet were searching for the right syntactic relationship to the “kingdom.” But being “inside” it is a fantasy, sequestered by em dashes within a harsh reality: “I am without.” The repeated brackets suggest erased text, adding space but subtracting possibility. They are never open—only closed.

For Sharif, exile is a matter of time as well as place. Born “away from” her homeland, she never had anything to forget, and yet she feels the missing memory as a compounding absence: she must “lose even the loss.” She finds one way of capturing this disordered temporality through the present-perfect tense in Farsi, which “is used at times to describe a historic event whose effect is still relevant today.” She translates the tense into English as “is-was,” as in “The Shah is_-was a dictator._” This layered vision of time deepens and extends the past, but can cloud what lies ahead. At one point, Sharif imagines a future self “who was dead before she died.”

For the anti-imperial poet, writing within the circus of empire is a high-wire act without a net. Facing a customs officer, the writer finds redress in knowing that her enemy “will be in a poem / where the argument will be // anti-American”—an insurrection that occurs only in the mind. Does it count? In “The Master’s House,” which takes its title from Audre Lorde’s warning that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Sharif lists the methods by which poets accommodate the evils of empire:

To be lavender sachets and cedar lining and all the ways the rich might hide their rot
To eye the master’s bone china
To pour diuretic in his coffee and think this erosive to the state
To disrobe when the agent asks you to
To find a spot on any wall to stare into
To develop the ability to leave an entire nation thusly, just by staring at a spot on the wall, as the lead-vested agent names article by article what to remove
To do this in order to do the other thing, the wild thing

While the “rich” and powerful have the tools to both “hide” and expose, the poet is stripped of instruments, one word at a time. The only means of resisting such humiliation, it seems, is to “develop the ability to leave”—the ability to disappear. Absence once again becomes the best way to hold on to what is most essential.

If preserving the self means withholding the self, can poetry create possibilities, or only retreat? Can it do “the wild thing”? Sharif’s collection imagines how a poet’s well-chosen lines might reject the arbitrary lines set by someone else’s customs—that is, both its borders and its norms. But it’s a hard vision to retain, and by the poem’s end it has been “forgotten,” if it was ever known.

The metaphor of a customs checkpoint may be a deliberate misdirection in a collection of poems that is also guided by doors and passages: between memory and forgetting; between the living and the dead; between the language in which one writes and the language in which one laments; between the poet’s real life and the poet’s “imagined life crying hot in my ear.” The porousness of these portals seems never-ending. When Sharif does find a gate that opens, she discovers that “more gates were built inside.” But in the collection’s final lines she travels down a path that does, at last, seem to reach a threshold:

I wipe clean my blade
I tap at the door

I pass through there so that

Here the book ends, the sentence left incomplete. Does this door open onto a place not yet charted in these poems? Or is the book a closed loop, its end a return to its beginning? That the answers to these questions are withheld may be reason to believe that the poet has reached a new realm. She denies us entrance in order to inhabit it herself. ♦

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