Review: Look by Solmaz Sharif (Graywolf Press, 2016) by Emilia Phillips

A few years ago an acquaintance told me that he never wanted to have to turn to the notes section in a book of poetry. His complaint was, no doubt, about the accessibility of poetic content, how a poem should stand on its own—Poe’s “unity of effect,” yadda yadda. But the comment needle-pricked me. As a reader, I find the same satisfaction in reading a poem, its note, and the poem again as I do in untangling a small gold chain. The notes section of Solmaz Sharif’s first poetry collection Look offers readers a sense of the poems’ linguistic catalyst: “Terms appearing in small caps are taken from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms as amended through October 17, 2007.” This dictionary introduces military-specific definitions outside of their common usage in English. The collection’s title is defined by the dictionary as “In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence,” a slippery, euphemistic definition that Sharif speculates, in introducing the book at readings, is the moment in which a mine is triggered to explode. Sharif fluidly maneuvers the terms into her poems, however, without the reader requiring any esoteric knowledge of their military-specific definitions. The speaker of “Safe House” uses two of these terms in the description of a video-call with her father:

           scan my memory of baba talking on

          screen answering a question (how are you?) I would ask and ask from behind
          the camera, his face changing with each repetition as he tried to
          watch the football game. (13)

The reader never need know the DOD’s definition of the terms scan and screen, but the visual reminder that these words have another meaning isn’t simply the trompe-l'œil of intertextuality but an argument that the US military’s involvement in the Middle East, as well as the concomitant discrimination of Arab and Muslim Americans, is a violent insurgence, one that infiltrates even the poet’s language. In The Poet’s Freedom, poet and literary critic Susan Stewart reminds us:

Any museum will specify the “ingredients” of a work of art: oil on canvas or oil on wood; bronze, clay, and steel; watercolor on paper; feathers, glue, and glitter. Unless such labels are written by the ghost of Lucretius, they will not say ‘subatomic particles.’ They are concerned with the field of materials as perceived by the maker—with forms given to hand and intention, and not with matter itself.

Although readers don’t have to ever go to the notes section of Look to understand the content of Sharif’s poems, we might better understand their aims by interrogating the entire field of materials as perceived by the maker, especially where those materials deepen the poems’ subtext. The small caps cue the reader to important elements in the field of materials perceived by the maker, namely that language—that we use, that we think we have control over—can be used against us, sometimes violently, sometimes without our conscious understanding of the fact:

          Daily I sit
          with the language
          they’ve made

          of our language

          to neutralize

          the capability of low dollar value items

Even as the reader negotiates how much attention to give these small-capped terms, Sharif’s speakers cross-examine their own attention, tremulous, personal. In “Personal Effects,” Sharif writes, “I place a photograph of my uncle on my computer desktop, which means I learn to ignore it” (56) and “I write him daily / And so I learn to ignore him.” (83) There are larger implications here, that what’s in front of us most often is what we learn to ignore. We normalize what’s most prevalent, frequent—death, violence, stats for drone-strike casualties, images of refugees. To see a violent image is, perhaps, to lessen the shock of seeing the next violent image.

This element of the speaker’s candor reminds me of Morgan Parker’s “If You Are Over Staying Woke”, in which the speaker directs efforts towards self-care through the fatigue, even PTSD, of witnessing systemic racism and violence against black people. Parker writes:

          Don’t smile
          unless you want
          to. Sleep in.
          Don’t see the news.
          Remember what
          the world is like
          for white people.

The form of Parker’s poem breaks down as the simplest of actions becomes difficult for the speaker; punctuation disappears (“lie to yourself / turn off the news / burn the papers / skip the funerals”), statements conflate (“Drink the white / Waterfall the / cricket songs”), the lines become irregular, the pace harried, breathless.

Sharif, on the other hand, implies the fatigue of the poet-as-speaker witness through her deft point-of-view maneuvers. “Reaching Guantánamo,” an epistolary sequence, captures the censored letters from a spouse of a prisoner of Guantánamo. The sequence affects the reader when experienced on the page but it devastates when Sharif reads it at a reading. She represents the censored passages by abruptly clipping statements and remaining silent in the blank passages. The first stanza of the sequence’s first poem demonstrates how these poems rely on what isn’t said as much as what is said:

          Dear Salim,

          Love, are you well? Do they          you?
          I worry so much. Lately, my hair          , even
          my skin          . The doctors tell me it’s .
          I believe them. It shouldn’t
                    . Please don’t worry. (45)

In reading these poems, the reader need not to sleuth out the redacted passages, for the speaker’s forced silence says more than the letter’s content. Sharif never overdetermines her point of view or narrative and, instead, allows for the poems’ forms to render and enact ambient spaces and imply the trace of action. In “Ground Visibility,” Sharif again enacts a sense of loss using the white space of the page and section breaks, the breakdown in formatting, where utterance—the howl of grief, the ear tuned to the heart—not eloquence matters most.

          this mangy plot where


          by now
          only mothers still come,

          only mothers guard the nameless dead




          and then sparingly


          these graves: the Place of the Damned


          the prison: History’s Dumping Ground (28)

The syntax remains unresolved, just like the mothers’ grief. So much loss lives through the plot of the words on the page.

In some cases, Sharif’s manipulation of form, including the introduction of the DOD’s redefined terms, may challenge some readers, but that’s perhaps part of the poetry's conceit. Sharif suggests that she’s previously been “diplomatic” in her writing, perhaps catering to all the reader’s comforts. Look, however, makes the argument that the reader’s comfort isn’t paramount to her work: “Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties: / All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless: / American and diplomatic”. (30) Sharif demands of the reader more than attention; she insists that her readers act in and beyond her poems but also interrogate their actions. These poems, then, approach a conversation with Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others obliquely, underscoring the essayist’s argument that, to Westerners—and, I’ll add, especially white Americans—“the other, even when not an enemy, is regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone...who also sees.” Indeed, Look, with its imperative-driven indictment of the reader, seems to argue that we should not only see what’s happening to others abroad but also what’s being perpetuated at home—“America, ignore the window and look at your lap: even your dinner napkins are on fire” (41)—but that we should also recognize that others see too, that they bear their own point of view, that our gaze can bear witness but also bear down on others.

To say that these poems are those of protest, witness, or resistance would be to simplify them, to mask their brutal, gorgeous originality—to make them about a uniform we rather than a plurality of Is. Like all truly important and lasting poetry, to reduce Look’s aboutness down to a summary only magnifies a portion of the whole, rather than bringing it all into focus. In reviewing the collection, I am, perhaps, falling victim to Samuel Johnson’s warning that “To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer.” Still, perhaps, Look might best be understood as a book after the title of one of its own poems, a “Vulnerability Study,” which submits itself to the task of becoming—remaining—vulnerable, of understanding how that vulnerability is not the same as the forced vulnerable of people under siege, whether rhetorically, culturally, or militaristically and, in doing so, the collection becomes—for the poet, for the reader, and, yes, for American poetry-a point of no return.


Emila Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks, most recently Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyric essays appear in Agni, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Poem-a-Day, Poetry, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She received StoryQuarterly’s 2015 Nonfiction Prize, The Journal’s 2012 Poetry Prize, as well as the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lectureship from Gettysburg College and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center. She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary University. 

Solmaz Sharif holds degrees from U.C. Berkeley, where she studied and taught with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, and New York University. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Witness, and others. The former managing director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, her work has been recognized with  a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, scholarships the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a winter fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, an NEA fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship. She has most recently been selected to receive a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award as well as a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. She is currently a lecturer at Stanford University. Her first poetry collection, LOOK, published by Graywolf Press in 2016, was a finalist for the National Book Award.