Look, by Solmaz Sharif.
Graywolf Press. $16.00.
In her debut book of poems, Look, Solmaz Sharif doesn’t so much weaponize language as reveal that language has been a weapon all along. The book’s spare and succinct poems are riddled with terminology from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, denoted by the use of small caps. This visual cue simultaneously emphasizes and destabilizes a word’s generally accepted meaning. As the familiar language we know becomes fraught, our everyday communications are revealed as suspect. By highlighting these specific words, Sharif encourages her readers to greet all words with distrust, mirroring the scrutiny endured by Look’s speaker and her family in post-9/11 America.
Penned in the wake of the Patriot Act and years of ceaseless war, these poems evoke the exhaustion of being constantly perceived as a potential threat. In Look, this suspicion manifests in obvious and state-sanctioned ways, such as being repeatedly flagged by airport security for pat-downs. It also persists in more subtle forms of erasure and aggression: having one’s name constantly mispronounced or being told to be so grateful to be in “this country” as to ignore torture. The psychic toll is evident in “Deception Story,” where Sharif writes:
Friends describe my disposition
as stoic. Like a dead fish, an ex said. distance
is a funny drug and used to make me a distressed person,
one who cried in bedrooms and airports. Once I bawled so hard at the border, even the man with the stamps and holster said Don’t cry. You’ll be home soon. My distribution
over the globe debated and set to quota. A nation can only handle so many of me.
In these lines, Sharif initially offers up a flattering response to the speaker’s affect (stoic), only to immediately undercut it with an ex-lover’s harsh and sexually unflattering appraisal (dead fish). Neither interpretation speaks to the underlying cause of this trait: distance. Constant suspicion distances the speaker not only from those around her, but from herself. It’s only in the privacy of bedrooms or in the liminal spaces of airports and borders that the speaker’s “deception story” is abandoned. That “distressed person” is one of the DOD definitions is darkly humorous, suggesting that the military complex doesn’t share the general public’s understanding of common human emotions. Perhaps that’s unsurprising; Sharif’s use of words such as “distribution” and “quota” shows how language reduces people suffering under politicized scrutiny to interchangeable numbers.
As you might suspect from the book’s title, both the act and the term “looking” are under considerable pressure. In DOD terminology, “look” means, “in mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.” Looking can have disastrous consequences, as demonstrated in the titular poem:
Whereas it could take as long as 16 seconds between the trigger pulled in Las Vegas and the Hellfire missile landing in Mazar-e-Sharif, after which they will ask Did we hit a child? No. A dog. they will answer themselves;
Whereas the federal judge at the sentencing hearing said I want to make sure I pronounce the defendant’s name correctly;
Whereas the lover made my heat rise, rise so that if heat sensors were trained on me, they could read my thermal shadow through the roof and through the wardrobe.
Sharif’s repetition of the lawyerly “whereas” demonstrates how the borders between public and private spaces have been blurred by legislation like the Patriot Act. Legal language tries to be precise, as do drone operators, but either can miss the mark by mistaking one thing for another. When they do, lives are twice snuffed out: first by incarceration or bombing, and then by the act’s rationalization (“No. A dog.”).
In Look, martial language infects everyday life, as in “Force Visibility”:
Driving to the cinema
you were yelling
This is not
yelling you corrected
in the car, a tiny
amphitheater. I will
resolve this I thought
and through that
resolution, I will be
a stronger compatriot.
In this poem, Sharif’s use of the military term “resolution” casts the argument as war, and her use of “compatriot” casts the relationship as a cause more than a romance. Likening a failing romance to war would be hyperbolic if so much of the book weren’t already shadowed by actual war. Here, it seems like the logical conclusion. The arguing couple on their way to view a spectacle are themselves a spectacle, their shouting amplified by the “tiny amphitheater” of the car. This feeling of being on display and exposed to potential danger is rendered even more ominous at the poem’s close, when:
beside us, briefly
a sheriff’s retrofitted bus.
Full or empty
was impossible to see.
Real power comes from observing without being observed, like the unseen driver, hidden behind tinted windows. It’s “impossible to see” whether or not they are a threat to the speaker and her companion, and that uncertainty is its own form of oppression. The only certainty is that there is always more room on the bus.
In the book’s standout long poem, “Personal Effects,” Sharif’s speaker attempts to understand the life and death of her uncle, her Amoo, a casualty of the Iran-Iraq war, by examining what few of his belongings and records she can find. Photographs are scrutinized and unpacked, their analysis supplemented by Wikipedia pages, a quote from Tolstoy, and letters. None of these scraps are sufficient on their own — the Wikipedia pages have dead links, the Tolstoy quote trails away into ellipses, the letters are fragmentary — but this imperfect documentation is the only way to glimpse the uncle and the life he might have had if not for war. This poem, alternatively personal and detached, is especially poignant in its speculative descriptions, as when the speaker looks at photographs of the uncle standing by a tank or holding a bazooka, and imagines his frame of mind (“You’re posing. You’re scared.”), or speculates as to the willingness of his participation in the war:
You begin to appreciate
the heft of your boot soles,
how they propel you,
how they can kick in
a face —
The shift from a boot’s utility to its potential for violence is jarring, intentionally so, as is the admission that the uncle is capable of it. Even more disruptive are the moments in which the uncle’s body becomes a kind of surreal interruption:
I killed him she’ll say
in the midst of civil affairs
he surprises, he arrives,
eyes taped shut, torso held together
by black thread, fridge-cold —
The mother’s digressive speech is conflated with the sudden appearance of her son’s body. It’s hard to imagine a more moving demonstration of the incessant intrusiveness of grief.
Sharif’s speaker is “attempting my own // myth-making” by reclaiming her uncle’s story from any number of pat narratives generated for political purposes. Amoo appears in many forms: as “the amount saved in rations,” as “a white archival box // with his personal effects” in “a museum / for the martyrs,” or as “a ‘casualty.’” Finding the real Amoo is an impossible task; none of these narratives suffice. It’s telling that the only way for the speaker and Amoo to truly meet again is through an imagined reunion, staged in an airport where confirming identity is a matter of belief and of love, not paperwork:
I approach you
in the new Imam Khomeini Airport,
fluorescent-lit linoleum, you walk up
to meet me, both palms
behind your back
like a haji. You stoop, extend a hand
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?
Works and Days, by Bernadette Mayer.
New Directions. $15.95.
In Bernadette Mayer’s Works and Days history and personal experience overlap and meld in occasionally confusing, often intriguing ways. But if it’s a muddle, it’s an intentional one. Mayer states in her author’s note that “the text is interspersed with seemingly random agglomerations of letters from a daily word game, the jumble.” These letters, hovering below many poems, generally read as nonsense, but occasionally surprise us with an intelligible English word (from “May 11”: “omcdined endom wreck o demon”). These jumbled letters with their unexpected pops of meaning mirror the experience of reading the book. In saying this, I don’t wish to suggest that Mayer’s poems are nonsense (they are not), but that the notion of a stand-alone poem doesn’t apply here. Many individual poems are opaque until illuminated by the poems around them, and the book very much expects the reader to do the work of arranging those interactions.
For example, reading “Prehistorically in Prehistoric Times” in concert with the next poem, “Waiting for Dave, Megan and Issa,” creates a dialogue that is more substantial than the first poem on its own. “Prehistorically in Prehistoric Times” is concerned with what’s lost when oral history is traded for scientific knowledge and technological innovation (and, implicitly, written language):
You couldn’t plan to get pregnantNobody yet knew about spermMen thought they were apartAnd nobody knew you could plant plantsPlants grew wherever they grewWhere did I see that jack-in-the-pulpit?People had memory of all the thingsTheir tribe had ever doneIncluding in the past they hadn’t seen
The poem’s presentation of prehistoric memory as encyclopedic and communal, able to reach into a past in which the individual wasn’t present, is contrasted with the present-day speaker’s inability to remember the location of a just-seen plant. It’s funny, though the implication that we as a species have lost something precious in favor of scientific knowledge feels like a romanticization of the primitive, especially when that knowledge concerns sexual reproduction. When read alongside the next poem, “Waiting for Dave, Megan and Issa,” however, the poem provides an answer to an unasked question:
NobodyHas figured out what to do with nuclear wasteIn Denmark it’s to be buried and so nobodyIn future times will unearth it, the wholeArea will be covered with faux thorns
In this poem, present-day humans are attempting to figure out how to communicate with future humans about dangerous radioactive waste. Scientific advancement is a failure here in more ways than one — there’s no solution to the waste but to bury it, and the written word can’t be counted on so far into the future. When there’s no tribal memory (as in the previous poem), communication is a problem that can only be solved by reverting to pre-linguistic signs: false thorns mean do not enter.
These kinds of conversations across poems occur throughout the book, especially in the book’s “days.” Like its namesake, Hesiod’s Works and Days, Mayer’s book is a farmer’s almanac of sorts. The first page of Works and Days tells us this is the “Spring Journal,” and many of the book’s poems are titled with a month and a day. These entries detail temperature, what’s growing or isn’t, visits with neighbors, and other small events. Many are small indeed, as in the poem “May 14,” where we learn “the birdfeeder fell over again, rain.” There’s a sameness to these poems that could be dull, yet Mayer mostly maintains the reader’s interest through subtle escalations. For instance, the birdfeeder introduces the idea of birds, and two poems later, in “May 16,” there’s a revelation: the bluebirds aren’t bluebirds at all, but swallows. This, she writes, with typical Mayer logic and humor, must be “why they were acting so bluebird-ish.” Such variations on the pattern of everyday life are oddly fascinating, especially when inflected by Mayer’s often exuberant voice: “it’s spring / Or something, a new season called WHOOSH” (from “A New Season”).
Works and Days isn’t solely concerned with the rhythms of the seasons, but also the rhythms of being a poet. We learn what books the speaker is reading, what classes are taught, and what poets are met. In this excerpt from “May 6,” for example, Mayer writes:
Bill Kushner showed up for our reading — me, Phil and Marie reading Hibernation Collaboration — and said he’d like to do a collaboration! He was wearing shorts. Also saw John Godfrey, Don Yorty, Keith Gardner, Mitch Highfill and Adam Fitzgerald. We read with inspiring Elizabeth Robinson and ate oysters. A woman named Charity who works for Jonas Meekas kept threatening to jump out the window or just accidentally fall.... Phil nicked his fingers shucking oysters. Saw lilacs! Some leaves are beginning here. Saw ZAM, Zola, Alyssa and Max. It could be Maz. Shazam! Or Mazda.
Some readers will find such moments chummish or even exclusionary, but on the whole, poems like these charm in the New York School tradition. The funny weirdness of the details mitigates any sense of name-dropping for the most part. These, along with many collaborative poems, give readers a glimpse into a vibrant artistic community.
All of this may erroneously suggest that Works and Days is mostly quiet and pastoral with a few trips to the big city. Nothing could be further from the case. It is just as often boisterous, personality-driven, and politically radical. One of the book’s primary questions regards land ownership. The anarchist catchphrase “property is robbery” recurs in the book, echoing Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Rousseau, and many others. This concern plays out in many ways. In the “days” poems, the speaker has a growing preoccupation with “GBF,” the “guy who bought the field,” a new neighbor whose attempts to tame a field into a lawn are met with scorn and distrust. The GBF appears in other poems as well, and when he does, Mayer uses him to critique the concept of property. In “Local Politics,” Mayer presents a single-stanza poem which seems to be the product of two overlapping poems. It’s nonsense, until the reader learns to read every other line. Just when the reader has the hang of it, Mayer will force the reader to again reassess the pattern. For example:
The field guy can’t stop, he’s a lunatic(the 1%) rented their land to the 99% of farmerszooming around in his bobcat, heand extracted crops as rent or even moneyfans the fires of my wrath: property is robberynot just a philosophical stance, the Kinderhookthe farmers dressed as Indians in calicoCreek Bank is lost to the enemy and poetry ...
The inconsistently alternating, unpunctuated lines unsettle the reader, suggesting that the past and the present are neither stable nor defined. The GBF’s manic insistence on ordering the wild field into a tamed lawn seems less funny and more sinister when intercut with a historical example of how property (and its rental) benefits only a small percentage of the population. The poems utilizing this imbricated form are some of the most interesting and challenging poems in the book, presenting at first a jumble, and then, sudden clarity.
Bastards of the Reagan Era, by Reginald Dwayne Betts.
Four Way Books. $15.95.
The subjects and themes in Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Bastards of the Reagan Era emerge from and are grounded in the formative event of the author’s young life: at the age of sixteen, Betts and a friend carjacked a man for a joyride, holding him at gunpoint. When caught, Betts was charged as an adult and served eight years in prison. During that time, he discovered poetry and became a writer. Bastards of the Reagan Era, his second book, bears witness not only to one man’s experiences in prison, but to the experiences of the community from which he came.
One of the real pleasures of the book is the facility with which Betts shifts effortlessly between elevated diction (“plangency,” “coffled”), prison slang and terminology (“Sally port”), and song lyrics. Just as the book’s title evokes the eighties, Betts’s allusions juxtapose “high” and “low” culture in eighties-era postmodernist fashion. In “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” a long, blank verse poem about a prison transfer in which each section shares a title with a Public Enemy song, Betts writes of “the wine-dark asphalt” and directly addresses the reader with: “let / Me tell you how this business began.” The latter is a clear echo of “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story,” the former a tart refiguring of the most well-known phrase of the Iliad and the Odyssey. With these allusions and the use of blank verse, Betts makes a case that his speaker’s trials are as arduous as those of epic heroes, and as worthy of recognition and remembrance. This journey, however, doesn’t end with a homecoming:
But we all dead all dead all dead all deadAlready, lost and this a voyage fromDeath to death, from godforsaken cellTo godforsaken cell and I can’t stopThinking about before I owned these cuffs.
The unpunctuated repetition of “all dead” reinforces the numbing repetition of incarcerated life. Likewise, Betts repeats “from / Death to death, from godforsaken cell / To godforsaken cell” to suggest that the state of imprisonment (death) doesn’t change, regardless of location; one coffin-like cell is the same as another. The line break on “stop” implies that there are more such transfers to come, all equally meaningless. Compared to the often playful accounts of Odysseus’s travels, this epic is purposefully bleak and unvarying: “it’s all / The same, same fucking thing, a narrative / That ends with cuffs around all wrists, again.”
This isn’t the only time Betts utilizes repetition. Eleven of the twenty-three poems share the title “For the City That Nearly Broke Me,” and four poems have titles beginning with “Elegy.” Certain words, like “cuffs” and “black” and “death,” repeat throughout the book, drawing connections between race, incarceration, and death. The benefits and the dangers of repetition are evident in the book’s three canzones, “Elegy With a City in It,” “Elegy Where a City Burns,” and “What We Know of Horses.” In the first two, Betts takes an already repetitious form and adds even more repetition to it. From “Elegy With a City in It”:
Many gone to grave: men awedby blood, lost in the blackof all that is awful:think crack and aluminum. Oddwhat time steals,or steals time: black robes, awfulnights when men offed in streets awedus. Dead bodies sold news. What’s real?Murder cap & all that. The Post a jackleg reelof it all: black death, awe.Chocolate city awash in red:500 bodies lost to morgues.
Spoken aloud, the poem is incantatory. On the page, it’s exhilarating to see how Betts finds new variations for the repeated words (awed/odd, for example), or encourages the reader to consider the roots of everyday words (awful = awe full). At the same time, the constant repetition sustained at length is potentially monotonous when the repeated words are used the same way in similar contexts. This dulling effect is compounded when these words appear at the ends of lines, inviting scrutiny that is not rewarded (“men awed / by blood” and “when men offed in streets awed / us”).
Throughout the book, Betts emphasizes the disconnect between media portrayals of rhetorical bogeymen and the specific identities of the people he’s known. He has stated in interviews that many characters in Bastards of the Reagan Era carry their real names or nicknames, allowing Betts to investigate the relationship between a country’s rhetoric and the fates of its individual citizens:
We were in a cloud of rhetoricAnd ganja smoke. The eighties a black cauldronThat christened Gator, Pookie, and how manyOthers crackhead, fiend, crack baby, more?— From Bastards of the Reagan Era
Here, young black men lose the names given to them by friends and family and are rechristened as abstract social evils. They lose their individuality and are villainized in service to an overarching political narrative. Meanwhile, the stories of people whose successful lives don’t fit that narrative go unreported and unremarked upon: “My uncle caught touchdowns for Bladensburg, / where his story. My aunts ain’t get high, my mom, / where their story?” (“The Invention of Crack”).
Again and again, reading this book, I kept returning to the prologue poem, “Elephants in the Fall.” This two-part poem describes the naming of Betts’s sons. It is lyrical and lovely, detailing the thought that went into each name, the lineages each sprang from, and the aspirations invested in each choice:
We namedyou after Monk, too,because sometimes you have tostack legends in a single bodyalready big enough for the sound of them& we imagined that you gave usa different tune,a way to bang keys into eachother until our livesfilled with unexpected music.
Naming a child is an act of optimism, highlighting the parents’ dreams for their child’s potential. As a preface to a book in which we see so many young men disappear or die, this hopeful poem serves as a fierce rebuke to complacency in the face of a “world which threatens” these young boys with similar fates. How could you, reader, let this happen?
Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (2012), winner of the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow (2013), from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Creative Writing Institute; and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston...