Book Review

Near the beginning of her new book of poetry, Solmaz Sharif employs a startling visual metaphor to define her poetics. The poem is entitled “Visa” (“From past participle of videre or to see”):

As we wait for her to exit customs, our sightline is obstructed by opaque sliding doors, the twisting hallway behind it, the small convex mirror hung in the corner in which we catch shapes growing larger, into hair color, into gait, into age, and finally, as they turn, into kin.
The hours I’ve stood there, behind that railing.
The hours I’ve stood to savor the seconds earlier, seconds more by which my eye may reach the disembarking and exclaimed, She’s here, watched, from shadow to shape to gait, my imagined life come to life and approach, briefly, me.
My imagined life crying hot in my ear.
Ink on its fingerpads.
This will be the last I write of it directly, I say each time.
This is a light that lights everything and dimly.
All my waiting at this railing.
All my writing is this squint.

“Visa” stands out as the key to Sharif’s book in more than one way. It contains the only use of the title word, “customs,” and the line containing this word is the longest line in a book with many long lines. As foreshadowed by the Ashbery allusion (“convex mirror”), “Visa” ends up being about poetry writing, as if against its better judgment. This poem crystallizes the method and contribution of Customs: to create a mosaic of contemporary consciousness out of such inimical materials as political exile, government bureaucracy, everyday experience, and discourses of poetry. This is a book not to be missed.

Like Sharif’s first book, Look (Graywolf, 2016), Customs ruminates on what it means to see and be seen, on sightlines. By locating her poems in the anxious space behind the railing that separates those receiving from those arriving at international airport terminals, Sharif enmeshes the poetic transaction in the machinery of state power. Each poem thinks, “This will be the last I write of it directly,” and each next poem compulsively reenters that expectant space to squint at a grotesque world in a convex mirror.

Look, a National Book Award finalist, was rightly praised for its moving evocation of themes of state violence, language loss, and intimacy. Customs is, if anything, an advance in technical assurance. Look relied on a discomfiting intrusion of US Department of Defense lingo into the poem’s native tongue; Sharif saved this gesture from being the showy gimmick it would have been in almost anyone else’s hands, yet it lends Look an overriding programmatic feel. With Customs Sharif has allowed herself to untether the project from a single, central gesture. There is “Social Skills Training,” a compact lyric essay on negotiating power in the manner of a textbook paragraph (“Studies show to negate something is to think it anyway”); “Learning Persian,” a list of floating terms evoking Iranian history and culture that dryly shifts linguistic effort from the English language learner to the reader (“deek-tah-tor” means dictator); and “The Master’s House,” a poignant, fugue-like poem composed entirely of infinitive phrases (“To recall every drawn curtain in the apartments you have lived / To find yourself at thirty-three at a vast expanse with nary a papyrus of guidance, with nary a voice, a muse, a model”). The deceptive ease with which Sharif rotates a given subject and discovers a form to match each facet reminds me of Anne Carson.

Most impressive, and most distinct from the voicings of Look, is “Without Which,” the long sequence at the center of Customs. Small sections of verse and blank patches are separated by double closing square brackets (“]]”). Sharif invents a spacious form for reflection on love, lack, and displacement. The brackets and blank space give the unfolding poem room to breathe, including two whole pages with nothing but brackets. It is a notable feature of all of Sharif’s poetry that it connects tectonic forces to small, bracketed moments, somewhat like Claudia Rankine’s recent books. Whereas Rankine most often turns to mundane intersubjective hiccups, Sharif is adept at proferring while at the same time revoking decontextualized lyric imagery. One has the uncanny sense that every detail is simultaneously ultra-personal and—because the poem detaches it from biography and place—universalized. Sharif has in her sightlines “leather buckets” (in Shiraz) and “a pool of water / in an Oakland pothole.” “Without Which” evaluates “the satisfaction of a small life // closed in a single mind,” “a little city where / I’m most grateful to be alive.” In context, the “city” is a bedroom. These are telescoping poems.

Solmaz Sharif has already made a name for herself. Customs confirms the arrival of a major talent. She is a refreshingly open writer, one unconcerned to fashion a poem in an expectable form, whether that be the pat didacticism of much mainstream poetry or the self-conscious obfuscations of the worst of academic verse. Sharif nimbly evades both sets of aesthetic criteria. In her willingness to break poetic decorum against the smooth surfaces of contemporary institutional architecture, she finds a partly personal, partly documentary, partly essayistic style all her own. A section of the final, untitled sequence in Customs strikes a last metapoetic note, and by now we are prepared to catch the poet’s reluctant harmonics behind the remembered song of a mother:

I tried to say it was dead, the song,
but then it came, my mother singing
of cypress—

I tried to leave the literal,
but it got lonely—

I tried to leave desire,
but it scratched at the door. . .

About the Reviewer

Eric Weiskott is a scholar, teacher, and poet based in Massachusetts. His scholarship on poetry (medieval and contemporary) appears in ELH, jacket2, New Literary History, and Modern Language Quarterly His poems appear in Texas Review, Inverted Syntax, 8 Poems, and Versal. His current scholarly project, Unheard Melodies, brings together fourteenth-century English and twenty-first-century avant-garde North American poets, with John Keats as the hinge figure.