by Donna Fotoohi | Contributing Writer
Graywolf Press, 2022
In all her writing, Solmaz Sharif wrestles with language, prying at and creating truth from within its tight fist. Customs, her sophomore poetry collection, does what she has always done best— reorient herself within the specificity of language. Sharif moves from her own experience as a forcibly displaced person in a country that seeks to destroy her, scrutinizing the countless physical, legal, and linguistic contradictions she faces along the way. In an interview with BOMB Magazine, she says:
“I generally have a reticent relationship to place, because it is one of the most obvious and glaring reminders that I am not living the life I was supposed to have lived. Once, I told my friend, the visual artist Samira Yamin, that my life in Iran was the life I “should have lived,” and she said, “What should be is happening.” We tried to find a tense for our displacement. Not “might have,” not “didn’t get to,” not simply “lost.” Nothing seemed quite right. We finally settled on “the life we might have otherwise had.” Something has been lost that is unnamable, and place is a surefire reminder of that loss.”
In Customs, this reminder comes in international airport customs, a place that demands she navigate the precariousness of national identity. In her previous collection Look, Sharif used the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to consider the way language has been used to perpetrate political violence. In Customs, however, she no longer turns toward something outside of herself to wrest meaning from; she now relies on her own relation to the space she occupies.
In her poem “Visa,” Sharif waits just beyond international customs for her expected arrival. The poem uses vision as its mode of movement— when the physical railing stands in the way, eyesight reaches beyond. Still, sight is controlled by objects, “the sight decided by officer,” deciding who gets to pass through to the other side; “our sightline is obstructed by opaque sliding doors,” each line unearths a new visual limitation. State borders have impinged on the beauty of arrival, turning an event of joy into one of anxiety. It is sight that is a threat to the state— leading to limited free movement, blocked views— while also being the method employed by the state to determine a threat. The modes of eyesight are both punitive and liberatory; it is eyesight that finally beholds anonymous shapes, turning them into loved ones:
“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.”
In the second part of the poem, eyesight shifts to the imaginary. Suddenly, the literal interpretation performed at the railing enters her mind’s eye: “My imagined life come to life / and approach, briefly, me.” Her imagined life arrives at the railing in this in-between space of customs, where citizenship status and country of origin come to a head to determine who shall pass. This imagined life is her own; a life where she arrives at customs, a guest to the United States; an arbitrary positionality that could have been her reality. “All my waiting at this railing. / All my writing is this squint.” All her writing occurs at this literal and theoretical railing, where “squint” becomes the method through which she struggles to understand her identity within the US, and her position as a writer trying to parse through the capricious system of legitimate citizenry and personal legality. Customs is an attempt to gain clarity where there often is none, through a keen eye slit between words on the page.
In “He, Too” Sharif becomes the person traveling through customs to meet whoever is waiting for her on the other side. Shielded by the poem, she places her self in conversation with a Borders and Customs officer at this moment of re-entry:
“Anything he asks, I must answer.
This, too, he likes.”
This officer maintains all power in the interaction, demanding her subservience, but soon she will seize that power to trap her subject, freeing herself. She confines him inside her poem, where he cannot escape, instead subject to her whims:
“I don’t tell him
he will be in a poem
where the argument will be
I place him here, puffy,
pink, ringed in plexi, pleased
with his own wit
and spittle. Saving the argument
I am let in
I am let in until”
Sharif’s conditional existence in the United States is dependent on the state and its agents. It is a place she is forced to live that does not want her. In this almighty land of free speech, she is forced to save her argument until she reaches the page— where she may finally speak honestly, “until.” Until what? Until the poem is published, until she no longer can manage to save the argument. Until the state decides her Iranianness is a threat, enough of a reason to disallow her of her status.
Her Iranian identity seems like a fixed constant in Sharif’s life, yet even this identity is conditional; she is of it but also removed as an Iranian in exile. When she travels back to Iran, she feels alien, lost, missing out on the little beauties she would recognize if she had remained. Sharif brilliantly articulates her displacement as an inescapable truth that has determined the course of her life. It is what propels her, grieves her, exalts her— and that which has the power to destroy her. In “The End of Exile,”
“As the dead, so I come
to the city I am of.
“To the life that is not mine.
is as not
“A without which
I have learned to be.”
“This thing: a without which
I cannot name.
Without which is my life.”
Sharif yearns for a life that “without” cannot control. It is this “without” that she has grown up within and which continues to define her life. Her use of prepositions upends the poem, as each word strangles us, demanding regurgitation. The coupled “I am of” / “Am without” begins the erosion of each preposition. To be of a place, while also being without it is a reality she has made the case for. As she continues: “To the life that is not mine/ is as not/ as never” she demands we reread, reevaluate, and reprocess, continuously. This poem is a never-ending battle; constantly shifting our perception of each word. Each repetition of “without” is a reformation, from preposition to noun and into the imaginary.
Over the course of the poem the meaning of “without” is complicated. It begins as it is meant to, as she feels loss over being “of” this city where she is also “without” it, as someone alienated from her homeland. The next mention “A without which / I have learned to be” subverts the meaning of the word into something whole and complete. Suddenly, “without” belongs to her, she embodies it. “Without which is my life;” a life without is still a life, it is her life. Her life of constant longing, of estrangement from herself, who she knows she will never be entirely connected to. The last line of the poem sounds like a triumph; when I read it, I mentally add a comma. A final proclamation “Without, which is my life.” It is this “without” that no one can take away. It has brought her here, to the page. Her anguish is palpable in her attempt at naming the enormity of such loss. She contorts the word so that “without” is able to overtake the loss; loss becoming something that can be contained by language.
This notion of “without” is again muddled as we consider the historical determinism that has led us to our present. History acts as a backdrop to being “without,” which is most simply: there is a reason you are “without,” and that reason is the historical past and present of the globe. Without the political meddling and imperial intrusion of Iran throughout the 1900s, Sharif and millions of others may not have been uprooted. Hence, “without” is a present condition— no one can be removed from the history of their homeland, this history is what has led them to this point. In “The Master’s House” she considers the implications of our past, and how it continues to inform our present:
“To know, for example, that in Farsi the present perfect is called the relational past, and is used at
times to describe a historic event whose effect is still relevant today, transcending the past
To say, for example, Shah dictator bude-ast translates to The Shah was a dictator, but more literally to The Shah is was a dictator
To have a tense of is-was, the residue of it over the clear bulb of your eyes”
Customs is led by this torturous is-was. There is nothing, Sharif attests throughout, that is isolated from the past: “The residue of it over the clear bulb of your eyes.” It is why Sharif writes at all; historical reverberations persist to this day, casting millions of people out of their land, halfway across the world, with return so often an impossibility. As she contends in “Without Which”:
“No crueler word than return.
No greater lie.
The gates may open but to return.
More gates were built inside.”
The rift that is built between those with and without their homeland is not one that can simply be mended with the exile’s return. The act of return itself is another rupture of the self, another broken attempt at healing.
In the book’s closing poem “An Otherwise,” Sharif revisits Iranian history. She begins the poem with a scene of the Shah visiting a children’s school in Abadan; a city once known for having the largest British Petroleum refinery. The Shah has just ordered all Russian books be removed from school shelves, but “The Dickens could stay. / You understand.” The Shah’s selective censorship is part of his plan to gain public support at a time when many were disillusioned with British involvement in Iranian oil. The Shah’s censorship is intertwined with a demand of obedience— even young schoolgirls are commanded to be a certain way, from what they wear to how they act, at the Shah’s behest. Sharif uses the imagery of pink, pure, untainted lungs (see: schoolgirls) until the refinery pollution inflames them (see: Shah’s repressive government).
“And the air is important to note
for what it is doing
to the pink
a life of inflammation.
Wave, girls, the teacher says
to the shivering
and ironed line of them.
And wave she did.
And if he cared
into the minds of teenaged girls,
would’ve seen then
the rifles pointed at him.”
Two pages later:
“Another way yet:
Fuck the British.
The Shah and the righteous
air of her life.
And bless the lung,
the sensitive bronchioles,
the filigree of finite health,”
The lifeblood of the Shah resides in the people; these connected bronchioles that make up the lung uphold him. Without them, the blessed lung, “the filigree of finite health,” cannot breathe for long. Once inflamed, the lung cannot revert back to its once pink and porous self. It carries the impurities of the past forevermore.
Throughout Customs, Sharif excavates orientations of space and time, revealing a tense lucidity. Sharif, along with countless other Iranians, carries the impurities of history closely, as they continue to rule the life she leads today. These impurities lend themselves to elucidation— Sharif looks towards an impure syntactic structure, seeking truth within the contradictions of her form. She fashions her poetry within the “is-was” she so masterfully illustrates, developing a recognition of displacement that concedes the limitations of return. Sharif’s vulnerability materializes in Customs in a way that it could not in her debut collection Look. Customs delves within, each prophetic line a gasp of air for its author and a lifeline to its reader.
Donna Fotoohi writes culture criticism at Pop Torture on Substack. She is a Bay Area-based educator studying to get her MA in Comparative Literature at San Francisco State. You can probably find her reading in the park or saying hi to neighborhood cats.
Solmaz Sharif is the author of Customs and Look, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Notable Book. She has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Her poetry has appeared in Granta, the New Republic, and Poetry. She teaches at Arizona State University.