No One In My Family Celebrates: A Review on Look by Solmaz Sharif

12079778_10106285764738939_240672169261332420_oSolmaz Sherif’s debut book, Look (Graywolf Press, 2016), interrogates the power structures of language and war; confronting political and social systems, as well as how these systems are deconstructed and used to demean one’s self-expression, identity, and behavior. Look strips away meaning and redefines military-esque language in order to extend our own ideologies circling the Middle East. We are left examining, wondering, unearthed by such in-depth search for what it means to be Muslim in a society such as our own. Look, as defined in the beginning of the book, taken from the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms: In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit receptive of an influence.

The first section is inhabited by the title poem: “Look.” In this opening poem, we are introduced to a majority of the book’s themes, as it were. However, the poem is structured as a proposal; each stanza starting with, “Whereas,” as if trying to provide example or supplements in understanding the opening lines: “It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me. / Exquisite.” The poem then follows with a number of stanzas explaining the different ways to understand this word: “exquisite”:

Where 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 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 handheld camcorder;

In just these few stanzas, Solmaz introduces us to intersection of; one, the gaze of the female body; two, how the destruction of the female body is pushed aside for male consumption; and three, the lack of familiarity, care, and treatment towards these bodies and its surroundings. However, what really takes me back is the choice words capitalized, forcing us to focus in the use of this language. The phrase, “TORTURE,” highlights is duality within the context of the poem; how it can be seen as “torture” to be in the speaker’s current situation mentally, and how that can easily correlate to being physically tortured within the Middle East. Solmaz uses this duality within numerous capitalized words throughout the book.

In the second section, we began looking at how family structures unravel within these systems. In various poems, such as “Dependers/Immediate Family,” we see a family suffering, questioning their own ideologies of war.


Dependers/Immediate Family
                for Amoo

At the WWII Memorial, FDR thanks women
for sacrificing their sons
and their nylons.
Mothers oil supply lines

of parachutes
and what weighs chutes down,

sailing toward tall grass or rock,

a sky delivered by God.
I’m told to say it plain:

you did not want to fight,
but family sent you to the frontline,

sons in NEATLINES, ON-CALL for the Lord.

Your crib, your teddy bears,
I want to say mother put a GUN
there, blocks and blocks of boys
with pistols in their lunch pails,

lined up at the Army Experience Center
playing Call of Duty beneath the pacing of recruiters,
shit-talking into microphones in select US malls
while mothers shop the bed linens or grind coffee, grateful
for the quiet home, for the empty backyards

where boys would slam plastic cars together, their lips buzzing
like copter blades. Boys, they dream

of invisibility suits, explosive inks,
then grow up to work
in weapons research labs,

formulating rays to knock you out,
rays to make you puke, rays to activate
each nerve ending, gas to make you laugh

and boil. A soldier told me about non-lethal weapons.

He told me about the innards he scooped
then sewed
(with what)
up the toddler and the smell
of copper.

I am older than you’ll ever be

and I keep going in that direction,
older than the boys

printed on state money
after going missing
in the smoke, beneath a tank,
the boys on a sun-faded, car-sooted mural
a wreath of white roses,
our precious, our cheapest
form of MINESWEEPING.

I’m now old enough to hear:
someone has to identify and
someone removes the shrapnel
and someone says not a scratch
when they pulled you out the fridge.

I imagine my father

looking into your cool face,
the difficult work of his knees

staying locked in that frozen place.


solmaz-sharif2
Solmaz Sharif

What’s lovely about this piece is the speaker talking to Amoo: “you did not want to fight, / but family sent you to the frontline, / sons in NEATLINES, ON-CALL for the Lord.” By directly speaking to Amoo, we are launched into the suffering or complication of Amoo’s life/the speaker’s own conflicts. We are told Amoo was encouraged to enroll in the military by “the family.” Here, we are drawn to the capitalized words, “neatliness,” and “on-call.” These words are attached to military conditions–being neat and always available. Yet, in this context, there is a double standard to neatness and availability which offers itself as mentally attacking and condescending. To be neat and on-call for the “Lord,” ties into the religious aspect of war and military. Not only do you have to fulfill these attributes, but you also have to do it without questioning the higher power. The “Lord,” here, can be seen as many things. One of those things being the government.

When Amoo dies, there is a guilt that overtakes the family. The speaker understands the guilt and incorporates military language to further perpetuate the conflict between a family pushing one into dangers and a family terrorized because they are perceived as dangerous: 

I am older than you’ll ever be

and I keep going in that direction,
older than the boys

printed on state money
after going missing
in the smoke, beneath a tank,
the boys on a sun-faded, car-sooted mural
a wreath of white roses,
our precious, our cheapest
form of MINESWEEPING.

I’m now old enough to hear:
someone has to identify and
someone removes the shrapnel
and someone says not a scratch
when they pulled you out the fridge.

The line, “I am older than you’ll ever be,” tell us Amoo has passed away because he can no longer age. When the speaker says, “I’m now older enough to hear: / someone has to identify and / someone removes the shrapnel,” we are given the process in identifying a soldier’s body once dead. The speaker announcing, “I’m old enough to hear,” illustrates a coming of age into Amoo’s death.

In the poem, “Vulnerability Study,” the speaker gives us short glimpses inside different scenes.


Vulnerability Study

 

your face turning from mine

to keep from cumming

 

8 strawberries in a wet blue bowl

 

baba holding his pants

up at he checkpoint

 

a newlywed securing her updo

with grenade pins

 

a wall cleared of nails

for the ghosts to walk through


Each scene is a moment of vulnerability–two people in the moment of climax, a man holding his pants at a checkpoint–in which involves another person witnessing a person’s vulnerable moment. The title includes the word, “study,” that teaches us, as readers, how to read the piece in a certain light. “Study,” can be lightly defined as watching closely or a constant going over. Here, in these few scenes, Solmaz is telling us to paying attention to some things. What floors me the most is the scene of the newlywed securing her hair with grenade pins. While she is alone in this scene, the grenade pins allude to people having been there before. Aside from this, beauty is platformed over destruction. Or the aftermath of destruction is used to create beauty. As we are not told of the relationship between the speaker and this newlywed, we know that the newlywed has a family (even if it is only their new spouse). Again, a notion towards how family can easily disregard another family member because they are consumed by societal structures.

The third section is addresses how deals with this language. In this section, “language,” is vastly defined as a verbal communication, photos, experiences, etc. Majority of pieces throughout this section or without titles. Having an entire section mostly without titles (however, one could definitely argue that all these poems are titled, “Personal Effects,” as listed in the table on contents) paints a wonderful picture of how we are unable to give these things a proper name without incorporating societal language/definition. In one piece, the speaker describes a photo of a soldier:

your whole body in a photo
your whole body
sitting on a crate
pressing your eyesocket
to the viewfinder
of a bazooka
crouched as you balance
the metal tube on your shoulder
in one you guide a belt of ammo
into the unfiring weapon
proud
your elbow out as if
mid-waltz
your frame strong
and lightly supporting the gun
a kind of smile
ruining the picture

In another piece, the speaker states: “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made / of our language / to NEUTRALIZE / the CAPABILITY of LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS / like you. / You are what is referred to as / a “CASUALTY.”

Both of these pieces describe a language in which disturbs. In the photo, the speaker announces the soldier’s smile as “ruining the picture.” By stating a “ruining” from the soldier smiling, the speaker is addressing the conflict shown through this picture–the soldier preparing to kill while smiling. The other piece uses this idea of “casualty” and expands it into what it means to be valued as such. Here, we understand the person is not a person, but just another number–and the speaker sits with this title. This language.

The collection ends with one poem elaborating on this idea of “drone.” This word stretches from not only military capacities, but into the family and self. This stretch illuminates what it means to be a drone–a robot controlled by another force. As the poem continues, we see ourselves being a drone. The language, stoic, trapping us in the limitations created by people in power; thus feeding us limited language in order for mass consumption:

:               he strikes me as a misstep away from she was asking for it

:               what did you expect after accepting a marbled palace

:               they drag the man who killed my uncle out a hole

:               they inspect him for ticks on national television

:               no one in my family celebrates


You can purchase Look here.

 

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