“Look” by Solmaz Sharif: Moving Meditations on War, Migration, Loss and Language

Look by Solmaz Sharif (2016, Graywolf Press)

Earlier this week, I read a volume called Look (2016 National Book Award finalist) by Iranian-American poet Solmaz Sharif (@nsabugsme). She was born in Istanbul and emigrated with her family to Texas, moving on to Alabama, finally settling in Los Angeles at 11. She holds a BA from UC Berkeley, an MFA from New York University and currently lectures at Stanford.

I have to say that the cover is dull and it doesn’t do justice to the range and depth of the emotions expressed in the book. In Look, Sharif mixes cold and hard military terminology (derived from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms) with intimate scenes from everyday life – creating a collection of list-like verses that is disturbing but impressively symphonic. She articulates the experience of war (both America against the Middle East, and Iran and Iraq competing with each other), migration, displacement, the difficulty of assimilation in new territory, the loss of loved ones, ending it all not in resignation or bitterness or anger…but in fearless song.

The fundamental theme of the book is language, its weight, its (often troubling) malleability. “Look” is a word in mine warfare – “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence”. Sharif refuses to yield to such euphemisms. In her opening poem, she declares: “Let it matter what we call a thing…Let me LOOK at you. Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.” The whole book is an exercise in seeing – Sharif asks us to register, recognise and reflect upon the true human cost of conflict and violence.



Two terms –

DEAD SPACE fridges full / after the explosion the hospital / places body parts / out back where crowds / attempt to identity those / who do not answer their calls / by an eyeball / a sleeve of a favorite shirt / a stopped wristwatch


DESTRUCTION RADIUS limited to blast site / and not the brother abroad / who answers his phone / then falls against the counter / or punches a cabinet door


“DESTRUCTION RADIUS limited to blast site / and not the brother abroad / who answers his phone / then falls against the counter / or punches a cabinet door” (Photo: Pixabay)



DISTANCE is a funny drug and used to make me a DISTRESSED PERSON, one who cried in bedrooms and airports. Once I bawled so hard at the border, even the man with the stamps and holster said Don’t cry. You’ll be home soon. My DISTRIBUTION over the globe debated and set to quota. A nation can ony handle so many of me.


“…one who cried in bedrooms and airports.” (Photo: Pixabay)



Suitcases of dried limes, dried figs, pomegranate paste, parsley laid in the sun, burnt honey, sugar cubes hardened on a baking sheet…One carries laminated prayers for safe travel. I stand still when she smokes esfand and fans away an evil eye…Suitcases they unpack and repack over Iranian radio, between calls passing gossip, the report on the brother’s liver: it’s failing, and he doesn’t want the sisters around because they will pray and cry over him like he’s already dead. Sisters unfurl black shawls from suitcases to drape over their heads.


“I stand still when she smokes esfand and fans away an evil eye.” (Photo: Peganum harmala – “Esfand” seeds by User “Roger Culos”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia) 



my mother around that blue porcelain, my mother nannying around the boxed grits and just-add-water pantry of the third richest family in Alabama…I’m four and in Alabama, I see him between odd jobs in different states, and on the video our friend shows baba a picture of me and asks how do you feel when you see Solmaz? and baba saying turn the camera off then turn off the camera and then can you please look away I don’t want you to see my baba cry


“…I see him between odd jobs in different states…” (Photo: Pixabay)


From DRONE –

: I say Hello NSA when I place a call / : somewhere a file details my sexual habits / : some tribunal may read it all back to me / : Golsorkhi, I know the cell they will put me in / : they put me onto a crooked pile of others to rot / : is this what happens to a brain born in war / : a city of broken teeth / : the thuds of falling / : we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter / : I am singing to her still


Other wonderful books of poetry on this blog: Life in Suspension/La Vie Suspendue by Hélène Cardona, Beyond Elsewhere by Gabriel Arnou-LaujeacBestiary by Donika Kelly, and The Mind and Favorite Bedtime Stories by John FitzGerald.



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