by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha | Contributing Writer
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. Solmaz Sharif reads at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 3 at Broadway Performance Hall—Seattle Central College.
or much of my life, what America has chosen to see of the region we call “the Middle East” is war: the ongoing war in Palestine (1948-present), the civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990), The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Clinton years of no-fly zones and siege (1993-2000), the war in Afghanistan (2001-present), the current war in Iraq (2003-present), and the war in Syria (2011-present). A long history of being primary actors or proxies in every one of these conflicts plays a significant role in how Americans look at and constitute the region for ourselves. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes, “Seeing … comes before words, and can never be quite covered by them … We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” Save for a minority who have travelled to the region, Americans experience the Middle East primarily by looking at curated imagery—in news coverage as well as in art. The making of the region is the work of this selective seeing, what we privilege with our attention.
In the context of art, the many people and cultures of the region remains largely a product of Orientalism. Edward Said coined the term and illuminates the tradition: “The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert.” We have guides who select what we see, who point out where to look and then narrate the images. I think of Edward Said’s Orientalism as I read Solmaz Sharif’s outstanding debut collection Look not only because of the landscape of the poems. Rather, I’m thinking of its audience and the language we share. This is a book of poems of and for us, the War-on-Terror Era readers. We, citizens of a nation endlessly at war, are re-awakened to the legacy of our language by Sharif’s work. From our first encounter with Look, the blinking double o’s of the title hold our gaze. Is it an imperative verb? An invitation? Or is it a noun? A posture?
Even before reading the poems, we learn from the epigraph that “look” is defined in the US Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms as “in mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.” A “look” is—in the vernacular of these poems and the nation that represents us—a breath held, one in which a weapon lies in wait. In Sharif’s finely-wrought lines, the use of this and other military terms evokes the full scope of context and meaning. Sharif’s poems point our shared language back at us—the Empire’s English, rife with the accumulations of its deeds and escapades.
Sharif’s typographical choice to present these words in small caps throughout the text sets up an intimate correspondence between poet and reader. Though they are visually distinct from the rest of the text, the small caps offer no instructions on how to read the words—they aren’t italicized in the way dialogue or foreign languages sometimes are in poetry. Rather, they operate as a visual indicator of the identity of the words, of their origin story. They remind the reader that we are now “seeing” the words—words we thought we knew—ripped from ordinary life and weaponized. In the landscape of these poems, words such as LOOK or PATRIOT or THEATER or DIVERSION or BREAK-UP or FIRE create a system of meaning predicated on violence.
“It matters what you call a thing,” says the speaker in the opening line of “Look,” the collection’s first poem, addressing the audience and deftly collapsing the artificial distinctions between the personal and political. In this poem, Sharif continues:
Whereas I thought if he would LOOK at my exquisite face, or my
father’s he would reconsider;
Whereas You mean I should be disappeared because of my family
name? And he answered Yes. That’s exactly what I mean,
adding that his wife helped draft the PATRIOT Act;
Whereas the federal judge wanted to be sure he was
pronouncing the defendant’s name correctly and said he
had read all the exhibits, which included the letter I
wrote to cast the defendant in a loving light;
Each of the men in this poem have constituted a world and placed the speaker in it. Each in their own way has enacted a violence. Each of the interactions with these men who possess some power over the speaker’s life is clarified and complicated by the weight we have learned that the small caps terms carry. All acts of looking are now implicated in this potential to detonate, to irrevocably destroy.
The sequence of poems in section II of the book, “Reaching Guantanamo,” presents another form of destruction: a series of imagined and erased letters from a woman to her husband, Salim Hamdan, a Guantanamo detainee. They are each individually, and in their cumulative effect, masterful works of restraint and re-enlivening of meaning. Sharif brings an acuity to the form that deserves admiration and close study. In an essay for the journal The Volta, she writes:
Erasure means obliteration.
The Latin root of obliteration (ob- against and lit(t)era letter) means the striking out of text.
Poetic erasure means the striking out of text.
Poetic erasure has yet to advance historically.
Historically, the striking out of text is the root of obliterating peoples.
e.g. Hillary Clinton said in her 2008 Presidential campaign: we would be able to totally obliterate them.
The Iranians, she said.
She said, That’s a terrible thing to say but
For this reader, though, the beating heart of Look are the poems that commence with “Personal Effects” in section III and culminate with the elegy of the poet’s late uncle who was killed in the Iran-Iraq war. It’s unjust and probably inaccurate to say that any one poem in Look is doing more work than another. However, the terrain that “Personal Effects” covers, that is made possible only after language has been reclaimed in the earlier poems, is worthy of special attention.
Thus far, the poems have both disabused the DOD dictionary terms of their sanitized appearance and have insisted that they wear their uniforms in the spaces they occupy. The language we make remakes our lives. We can’t pretend any kind of distance from the violence wrought beyond our sight, especially when it thrives in our words. “Personal Effects” opens with: “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made of our language.” Sharif implicates all “theys” in this violence.
They are building a museum
for the martyrs.
Some metal shelf,
a white archival box
with his PERSONAL EFFECTS.
I am attempting my own
He didn’t want to have
to do with it.
I am haunted by this phrase, the attempt at myth-making. What is war if not an enactment of national mythologies? And among the myths that drive decades of wars is one in particular which undergirds all our violences. This is an idea that feminist scholar Judith Butler writes about:
One way of posing the question of who “we” are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable. We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.
We see the impact of this dichotomy—those who are grievable and those who are not—in the cultural norms established by decades of corporate media news coverage of the region, and beyond that, of most marginalized communities. Namelessness, a first step towards dehumanization, renders a life ungrievable. After the 2014 war on Gaza, a group of Palestinian youth worked with an American journalist to found an organization called We Are Not Numbers, with the singular purpose to remind us, as news-consumers, of the names and lives of Palestinians killed in the war. We consume mass casualties as events, but the individuals who actually die, should they have lived in brown and black bodies, are often rendered “ungrievable” by the space they are assigned in our culture and our consciousness.
The poem continues:
you are what is referred to as
a “CASUALTY,” Unclear whether
from a CATALYTIC or FRONTAL ATTACK, unclear
the final time you were addressed
thou, beloved. It was for us a
Here, again, is the lyric self, what Sharif has described as “the political weapon I have as a poet,” reconstituting the meanings of these words, placing “Just” beside “DESTROYED.” Not a target destroyed, but “us”—the family, and by extension, the people.
Art, if we allow it, can become the respite of privilege, a place for only the beautiful—that other loaded term, a place where the selective gaze rests, an escape. Or it can engage with what Butler calls the precariousness of a human life. It can render grievable the life that a state has deemed a LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEM.
Traditionally, the elegy is written in three phases, opening with a lament for the dead, and then mythologizing of the dead, and finally ending in consolation. In “Personal Effects,” we enter myth knowing the shakiness of the ground on which we stand. The lament for the uncle opens with a description of the space in which she searches for him:
grief is a CLOSED AREA
CLUTTERed with his fork against the plate
and other forgotten musics.
The enlarged ID photo above her mantel
means I can know Amoo,
my dear COLLATERAL DAMAGE,
as only a state or a school might do.
Even in the lament, the language of militarism is employed to enact the experience of living in the space his absence inhabits. A word as delicate as “cluttered” is transformed, and now simultaneously evokes a room where she grieves her uncle and the battlefield where he likely perished. Even the ID photo in the intimate space of the home formalizes and limits the access she can have to him.
Later in the poem, the uncle’s familial title is repeated:
Amoo, I think.
The word a moan
a blown kiss
the soft things it makes a mouth do.
Here that the second phase of the elegy is clearest. Not quite mythologizing, but a reclamation of the uncle from officialdom’s narrative of ungrieveable casualties. He is not simply “Javad,” his birth name, but “Amoo” defined by his relationship to his niece. He is connected to a generation beyond his own who can reconstitute his life and who can mourn its loss. The speaker’s address commences with such tenderness, in which she imagines encountering her uncle in an airport. She is arriving in the international terminal. Even in this myth, her status—exile and immigrant, one “disheveled / from the search, raw”—is unchanged. The poem surrenders to an intimate personal dictionary of sounds:
Hello. Do you know who I am?
Amoo Javad I’d say.
The things a mouth wishes to
or Amoo Javad
or Amoo joon Javad
Janam you would respond—
My life, my soul, you’d say—
Language and its expectations
about the relationship
we would have had.
That final line grips my heart with every reading. Claiming the uncle in his own language, with a word that evokes a future he will not witness, is a reaffirmation of the life he lived. Here is poetry at its most incandescent, resistant in the face of war. And, perhaps in the final lines of the poem, the poem attempts to find the consolation of being authentically known:
Hello. Do you know who I am?
Yes. I tell you, I half-lie,
Yes. An address, beloved
a rooftop of doves
crouched to launch
How could I not?
“Janam” and “joon” are variations in Farsi of “my beloved.” It is not enough to simply count the dead, or even to say their names. To be elegized is to have been known. To have been seen and thereby rendered grievable. Perhaps this is the realization of elegy’s promise, and one of Look’s revelations. That it is possible to be known in a language at once intimate and reconstituted. That language, rescued from the machinery of war, can offer the consolation of being looked upon in relation to—or as through the eyes of—the ones to whom you are beloved.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her first book, Water & Salt (Red Hen Press) won the 2018 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. Her chapbook, Arab in Newsland, won the 2016 Two Sylvias Press Prize. In 2017-18, she served as inaugural Poet-In-Residence at Open Books: A Poem Emporium in Seattle.