Poetry can be supremely palliative, adding beauty where little is found or providing therapeutic relief from emotional disquiet. Though I do not wish to diminish nor denigrate those invaluable benefits of our art, it simply cannot be the case that poetry serves only to dress up plain speech or to “take the edge off” of the sometimes difficult task of living. Indeed, in our darkest times, situations might demand that we put the edge on—that we reflect accurately the cruelties of our age; give deposition and bear witness to oppression, inequality, injustice and outright inhumanity in whatever ways we encounter it. Absolutely we should value and support the most unheard voices, those who lack power or who are rendered helpless by conspiracies of capital and its ugly cousin force. But it is a further insult upon those caught in the crossfires of empires and rebellions not of their choosing to say that it is up to those who are attacked to speak up. What if they cannot or will not, or if their calls to witness are suppressed, censored, “conditioned” away through “official” means. I find I must put quotes around “conditioned.” I must put quotes around “official.” We know that those words tarry in the fields of euphemism, and the invisiquotes of speech allow us to signify together as a culture that we are aware of the conflicting meanings and will not personally accept them, though we cannot seem to win the war of words, or more accurately, the war of what words mean. It takes a brave poet to publicly interrogate that most insidious form of word usage—political newspeak—because such interrogation requires that the artist choose to push against the very foundations of intelligence—both as an agency and as an inner sanctuary.
“When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer,” wrote George Orwell, the namer of newspeak and big brother and doublethink. “To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the distance of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies…even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink.” (Orwell, 1984) Humans may be conditioned into unexamined prejudices by the ways in which those in power corrupt meanings (think “Operation” “Desert” “Shield” for example) or manipulate us into accepting positive and negative words as being synonyms of one another (bosses “offer,” workers “demand”). Hear what happens there? People who are shot are “casualties” (Ooops!). People who shoot are “exercising” their “rights.” We have not only yet to decide whether the constitution includes a “right to kill,” we can’t even agree what “kill” means. Are people in Flint, Michigan, being killed by the government or are they simply dying?
“Look.” Solmaz Sharif is telling us to look. It’s a word we recognize and understand. “Look,” she says, and grabs our attention. But as soon as we open the book, we’ve set off a mine. Look isn’t just “our” word “look”—it also belongs to a specialized jargon of killing a vocabulary of military defense. “And related terms,” I must add, because not every form of warfare is visible. Sealed documents have probably killed more people than actual bombs have. Orders are given. If we, as citizens, object to an unjust war—(“Unjust?” I must think about what that implies. Is there a just war? Is it as casual as just sex?)—if we object to a war, any war, it is a sacred calling to disobey orders. Passive resistance cannot be enough. Maybe even releasing the “authorized” documents is not enough. Because the documents are boring, filled with official abstractions made largely unreadable. Who’s going to sit down and take the time to decode a dictionary, a department of defense manual? Even to understand doublethink one must think in doublespeak. Look at “Look.” Sharif gives us the sanctioned, government encrypted definition: “In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.” Influence. That’s the name of the child collaterally damaged by the mine. Every word in this departmental glossary veils an atrocity. Sharif unmasks the language so that we are startled into recognition of the underlying horror. “Let me look at you,” she writes, forcing visibility, clicking the camera in our faces to register a moment of personal uncertainty. All of this is being recorded, including all the times you felt bad for the war but did nothing, all the times you yourself abdicated responsibility, all the times you said, “if I vote, I’ll get on the jury list,” as if it’s unreasonable to expect you to serve both freedom and justice in the same year.
“Is this what happens to a brain born into war” Sharif wants to know. Are we to take as commonplace the deaths at the hands of police, national security officials, and other “peace keepers?” Are we simply to look away if the conflict is “over there.” “There are many domestic over theres as well,” Sharif has said. “What does this have to do with my poetry? In the lyric, what here and there? What before and after? For the United States, there is no after violence. Perhaps more accurately, no before.” As a child of refugees who fled Iran to escape a war which took the life of her uncle, Sharif is uniquely positioned to speak of not just military actions and words but the effects of Islamophobia, and what it’s like to be treated with suspicion in your own country because your name sounds “dangerous.”
“So you feel dangerous?” She said.
“So you feel like a threat?”
Why was I so surprised to hear it?
Sharif is mindful of the power of witness and the risk of appropriations, even small ones “Daily I sit/with the language/they’ve made//of our language.” Her manipulations stay visible, so that we are made aware of repurposed words, substitutions and redactions. The effect is to render public and conspicuous the killing machine which hides behind pillars of “justice” and “freedom.” As Brandon Amico observed in his review of Sharif’s book, “Look urges us not to divert our gaze from the atrocities simultaneous with our lives, not to be distracted or misled or lulled by the language war is wrapped in, but to take that step toward actually noticing and understanding what is happening, which requires—as the book’s title plainly asserts—that we look.”
Formally, the book is peppered with the bullets of officialese. These words appear in small caps and are alternately used as endwords, beginnings, lists, double entendres and explosive devices, they are an ordnance shattering the silence of consent. That this book should be called “ground breaking” is no small remark, for the ground most definitely breaks in these ingenious, innovative and affectingly personal lyrics from the front lines of language. In a society that manages to dehumanize killing through euphemism, Sharif’s poems act as an agent to rehumanize. These are not merely poems to comfort us. They are poems to incite change.
D. A. Powell is the author of 5 collections of poems, including Useless Landscape or a Guide for Boys (2013), recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.