Look by Solmaz Sharif

Look BY Solmaz Sharif. Graywolf Press. . $16.
The cover of Look

In a recent essay, the poet Solmaz Sharif lamented that so few contemporary American poets write about American wars. The reluctance to touch the topic, she thought, often came from a well-meaning humility: Unless the author has a personal experience with war, they think they can’t write it. Yet this demurral, Sharif wrote, paradoxically “drops the burden of actual critique on the survivors themselves,” or else leaves it “to vets and embedded journalists who invade and then get to write about their invading, doubling their power.”

The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie perceived the same reticence. It stemmed partly from fear of being guilty of appropriation, a lesson that writers of empire, as she called them, needed to learn. But Shamsie also identified another factor: quoting John Hershey, she wrote, it’s an “issue of how central the burden of the story is to the author’s psyche.”

For most American authors, war simply isn’t central. Sharif has written an urgent collection of poems that says it ought to be. The book, entitled Look, responds to the question of authorial access with a simple redefinition:

According to most

definitions, I have never

been at war.

According to mine,

most of my life

spent there.

Look is an exercise in such redefinition, which takes as its source material the Defense Department’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a compendium of some 6,000 pieces of military jargon. (The “look” of the title refers to “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.”)

Sharif includes an epigraph from Muriel Rukeyser, writing after World War II: “During the war, we felt the silence in the policy of the governments of English-speaking countries. That policy was to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterward.” Fifteen years into our current predicament, Sharif is intent on looking for the meanings. The poems in the collection riff on the military terms as they refer to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo, but also California and Alabama; they range across YouTube and headlines and straight into the most intimate moments of Sharif’s life and family history.

Sharif is not the first poet tempted by the found language of the war on terror. Despite the best efforts of the security state, we have ready access to masses of documents: investigations, reports, leaked photos, lawsuits, press releases. Seizing the state’s language for poetic material (or “materiel”) is a democratic gesture, both a subversive reclamation and an acknowledgement of the civilian’s equal responsibility.

And there’s something automatically evocative about the bureaucratic language of war, in the particular mismatch between the casualness of some words, the technological specificity of others, and the death hiding behind them all. As a reporter, I’ve looked at a “storyboard” for a drone strike, as a former “sensor operator” spells out the acronyms for me, explains the different types of blots (“heat signatures”) made by humans under an infrared camera at night (HVIs, PAX, EKIAs, MAMs, CIVCAS). Dictionaries, glossaries and code names offer bizarre juxtapositions, perverse double entendres, anthropomorphism and mythology (the “unblinking eye” or “Gorgon stare” for a drone’s camera). How to respond to such blatant obfuscation?

One can focus on the fact of secrecy. "Astro Noise," Laura Poitras’s show at the Whitney Museum of American Art earlier this year, was a slow reveal of the truth behind black spots and redactions, attempting to impress upon visitors the scale and power of the dark world. It is overwhelming. Poitras gave the writer and artist Jill Magid access to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, and tasked her with writing a glossary of surveillance terms. Instead, Magid wrote a clever imitation of an official memo, mimicking the language of the National Security Agency in order to express its impenetrability. A winking attempt to undermine the self-importance of state language, it also seemed an honest expression of defeat.

Defeat and retreat to irony is the overwhelming theme of poems composed for Privacy Policy, an anthology published a year after the first Snowden disclosures. “Very few people (poets or otherwise) know how to be angry at the situation,” said Andrew Durbin, one of the contributors. Privacy Policy turned inward instead, toward self-surveillance and consumerism. War, where it surfaced, became just another piece of digital clutter.

Others have let documents speak for themselves. The poet simply holds them up, like one of Jenny Holzer’s redaction paintings. The French poet Frank Smith’s book Guantanamo manipulated transcripts from interrogations of prisoners. In deadfalls and snares, Samantha Giles made brutal poems drawn strictly from accounts of torture. (The coda: “Thank you to George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld…without whom this book could not have been written.”)

Highlighting the bald ironies of the evidence, however, doesn’t necessarily help work out the meanings. That’s where Sharif’s poems go further, vivifying dead language and drawing it close.

Sharif deploys irony well. In Look, military terms spew up sarcastically—“Ladies, bring your KILL BOX. Boys, your HUNG WEAPON”—with satisfying bite. In one poem she writes, “Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties: / all my Muse’s poetry has been harmless: / American and diplomatic,” in a tone which threatens a new approach. The line references Ovid’s “The Ibis,” a vicious poem made up of gross insults hurled from exile (it ends with Ovid telling his foe he reads his name in toilet stalls). Sharif’s version of the curse poem runs through the terms of torture, of force-feedings and executions, nicking Obama along the way—“the nation must administer / A bit of hope … Ensure by tube by nose, by throat, by other / Orifice. Must fistbump a janitor. Must muss up / Some kid’s hair.” Someone asks her if she loves this country, and she says, “Somehow I can’t say yes.”

Not every poem hinges on military terms, but they crop up throughout like a kind of subcutaneous code, kept in small caps, raising suspicion, constant imperatives to look at the language, and consider our relation to it. In veering between intimate and official knowledge, Sharif returns repeatedly to the theme of who has the authority (and who the obligation) to speak about violence.

The heart of the book is “PERSONAL EFFECTS,” a long poem about Sharif’s uncle, who died in the Iran-Iraq War. “You are what is referred to as / a ‘CASUALTY,’” she addresses him, in “the language / they’ve made / of our language.” Sharif faces constant questions about whether her poems are appropriate. She burns her finger on the broiler, and it makes her “smell trenches, my uncle / pissing himself.” Someone scolds, “How can she write that? / She doesn’t know.” The poem ends with an answer: “How could I not?”

I met Sharif a few weeks ago, and we spoke about empathy and access to others’ stories. Sharif told me that to write about her uncle was not so different than writing about any other victim of war; or rather, it required the same reach, the same mediation through evidence—photographs, news clippings, and family lore. Sharif, an Iranian born in Istanbul and educated in the United States, experiences her uncle’s war in broken Farsi, letters, mementos, and, in this poem, through a kind of séance (the scattering of capitalized terms recall a Ouija board). “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,” she writes.

It takes imagination to fill the areas closed off by violence. A series in Look called “Reaching Guantánamo” invents censored letters to a detainee from his wife. The poems are an expansive gesture; rather than coldly echoing the closure of censorship, the white blanks of missing words create an empathetic aperture. But I don’t want to say Sharif’s poems serve the liberal goal of humanizing the other. Rather, they work at the more radical aim of challenging the reader’s complacency. Rukeyser wrote that she preferred the word “witness” because of the “overtone of responsibility” not present in “audience” or “reader.” Sharif’s poems demand witness.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag cautioned that we have to acknowledge the limits of our access to the pain of others, even when there is a political utility to bearing witness. In watching recent videos of police shootings and other horrifying imagery in the news, I thought of a line from Look, “grief is a CLOSED AREA.” In that brief phrase Sharif evokes the black box of inaccessible anguish, but with the authoritarian shade of “CLOSED AREA,” she reminds us of powers that would rather us not see the grief at all.

Cora Currier is a national security reporter at The Intercept.