Reviewed here by So to Speak’s poetry editor Danielle Badra
Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK creates a window into the wartime reality of the Middle East and the reality of the average American who can barely recognize that we are still at war, it is a window that blurs the lines between these starkly opposing realities. She uses the language of the oppressor, the dominant military force (aka the US military), and introduces these terms into poems about life in America and poems about life in Iraq and Iran. The way she uses these same militaristic terms to write about something mundane and something disturbingly destructive works to really challenge our understanding of wartime, “our” as an American collective who has largely been protected from the experience of war. Unlike the Vietnam War which was watched by viewers all across America on a daily basis, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria have been largely undercover—even fully contracted wars where there is no specific government behind the attacks in Fallujah and Kabul, but rather blood companies, war machines, such as Blackwater.
Sharif’s LOOK is asking her readers to do just that, LOOK at the world around you, LOOK at the war around you, LOOK at what you are protected from, and think about what your experience would be like if these militaristic terms were used to detonate your home instead of to disrupt a poem.
This is not the only focus of LOOK, Sharif also documents her personal and familial experiences of warfare and immigration from Iran. One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Family of Scatterable Mines.” Just this invented word, “Scatterable” speaks directly to the experience of those stuck in a war zone—often the only way for a family to survive is to scatter, to flee—its an explosive event, the event that causes a family to flee their entire culture, history, ancestry, everything that makes a home feel like a home. In this poem, Sharif recreates that space in a very ephemeral way—the whole home is there but packed into suitcases. The whole family is there, but in pre-mature mourning for a brother who is dying—not yet dead, throughout the poem.
In all wars, the primary way to win is to destroy the family. There is no quicker way to tear up a family and force them out of a country than to kill the children—to attack the youth, to attack the future.
The image I can’t stop looking at in this piece is, “Sisters unfurl/ black shawls from suitcases to drape over their heads./ I carry trays of dates before the men, offer little/ square napkins, thank their condolences, hold the matriarchs/ while they rock.”
That word choice of matriarchs really highlights the power of the mother and the mother’s grief as the deadliest of military tactics. When the matriarchs are rocking back and forth in grief, the earth becomes too unstable to stay in place. This is where immigration starts, this is where refugee communities have come from, and this is the image of what they have lost or what they try desperately to hold on to. This is the image of war that Solmaz Sharif wants us to remember.
LOOK is an important book for an American audience to read, but also for a global audience to read. It speaks to a global refugee dilemma, of a generation of youth that has experienced nothing but war, of poverty and of perseverance against all odds.
It is a book for all eyes to notice, for all eyes to not look away.
Danielle Badra is working on her MFA in Poetry at George Mason University. She is the poetry editor of So To Speak, a feminist literary and arts journal. Dialogue with the Dead (Finishing Line Press, 2015) is her first chapbook, a collection of contrapuntal poems in dialogue with her deceased sister. Her poems have appeared in Outlook Springs, 45th Parallel, and The California Journal of Poetics.