Sunday Review: Look – ‘Let it matter what we call a thing’
a poetry collection from Solmaz Sharif
[ Graywolf Press / 2016 / 112 pp ]
If I say drone, do you think of the verb or do you think of the technology? In Look’s Notes, we are told that the military term was removed from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms in 2015, because it had been assimilated into the English language. While that could be lauded as creative linguistic expansion, you’d have to be naïve not to recognize the authority of this freak Orwellian newspeak, devoid of emotion, priding itself on the technical, the non-human. It’s easier to kill people if they’re within the “casualty limit” boundary, if death is, quite literally, “NEUTRALIZEd” (‘Personal Effects’).
The military empire is colonial in nature: its reach extends to linguistics. Its discourse seeks to marginalize and encase the Other: in ‘Break-Up’, Sharif makes this encasement visually literal, as the speaker’s personal diction is contained within brackets, and where military language is the non-bracketed dominant: “[I loved you at lunch] / the result of magnification”. This is not a collection about subjugation, however: it’s one of resistance. Sharif fights back by deconstructing the Defense’s Military dictionary, claiming its signifieds and placing them into the realm of affect, subverting the military’s verbal power play by connecting it to marginalised, Othered lives: “Let me LOOK at you” (‘Look’), “He said use wood sticks to hold up your protest signs then use them in / SELF-DEFENSE when the horses come” (‘Safe House’).
One of the most remarkable things about Look is the way Sharif effaces the gulf between the domestic (home) and the alien (the terrain of war, foreign countries). In this sense, she disrupts the idea of comfort that comes with being far away from action, or the remove that comes with letters, images (it’s no surprise that photography is a central theme, most memorably in the ‘Personal Effects’ sequence). Not even the sexual—that realm of privacy which we cling so tightly to—will escape melding with the public. Take ‘Deception Story’, where “an agent will […] pat the hair at your hot black DOME”. War and home collide in the poet’s diction, so that, combined with Sharif’s free verse and judicious use of space, words come at you like threats, charged with innuendo: “fridges full / after the explosion” (‘Lay’), “The doctor’s softly / splintered popsicle stick” (‘Expellee’), “pistols in their lunch pails” (‘Dependers/Immediate Family’). Metre often enhances this sense of danger: take the anapaestic beat in ‘Lay’, for instance, which gently magnifies the last word into a thud—“beneath an arm […] in a shroud”.
The domestic—a home—doesn’t only mean a place sheltered from world violence. It is also a living room in Iran, pock-marked with gunshots. It is an Irani family living in America, dealing with the war from a physical remove, fighting another kind of torment at home, grieving. Urgent doesn’t do this collection justice. It should be mandatory reading.
Visit Graywolf Press to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Alexandra d’Abbadie
Five Things with Ellen Duffer
1. The last thing that made you smile.
The passionate people at the NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts volunteer meeting I attended last night. There’s a bill moving through the Massachusetts legislature that should help protect the access to contraception that many members of Congress would like to eliminate with the repeal of the ACA, and its success is promising.
2. A secret.
I don’t have any.
3. The last thing you wrote.
A piece for Racked on K-Beauty and washing your face. I can already tell you you’re doing it wrong, so please read this.
4. Favourite city.
I guess Boston, because I like coming home at the end of the trip. But I don’t like visiting places multiple times—too much to see on this planet to do repeats if I don’t have to. The only real exception here is LA. That’s embarrassing, though. You’re not supposed to like LA. It feels like a giant suburb, so I think it just reminds me of where I grew up. It feels comfortable.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
I’m concerned about the preservation of the digital space, so I guess every piece of digital information that has ever existed stored on some DNA.
Ellen Duffer is the managing editor and blog editor at Ploughshares.
If you would like to be considered for the ‘Five Things’ series, email your answers to:
The Undue Acidity in Your Veins
poetry from Chloe Clark
“you press into me and I press / into my skin”
What attracts me to this poem is the dialogue and direct commands. A poem is the balance of weight and lightness, and Chloe Clark successfully demands our attention with words such as “press”, “make”, “cut”—all monosyllabic and to the point. We are voyeurs in this poem, alienated from the speaker’s physicality. And yet you can feel the blade of the scalpel, the fingertips—all instruments of touch and torture. I also appreciate the lack of saccharine fluff and softness, no reservations even up until the end of the poem. You don’t need to know the story or motivations of the doctor or the characters, just the blood and the wounds after.
Visit Split Lip Magazine to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies
short story from Brooke Bolander
I told myself: you can’t choose Brooke Bolander’s short story to feature because science fiction is outside the purview of the Wilds. On the heels of that self-imposed and needless assumption came another more important consideration—in the wilds where everything grows, everything goes, and isn’t our job as contributing editors hunting for the greatest, darkest, and most succulent wonders for you to read no matter what field they are from? Yes. And so here you go: even though it fits loosely in the field of science fiction/fantasy, this Nebula-award nominated story about curious and powerful creatures interacting with our mundane world is meant for all readers. Don’t let something as simple story as classification turn you away: Bolander’s story is lyrical, lush, playful with structure and convention. Oh, it’s righteous and biblical in scale. It’s everything I love in a story. It’s one of the greatest fruits I could bring from the wilds.
Visit Uncanny Magazine to read the story.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
poetry from Melissa Lozada-Oliva
“My Spanish reaches for words at the top of a shelf with no stepping stool, is hit in the head with all of the words that I’ve been hiding up there.”
I want to gift you all today with a slightly older favourite, something that sparked my endless love and admiration for spoken word poets. There’s something so vibrant and so much more powerful about performing poetry and not just reading it. It’s not just the words, which run spilling like river rapids or the timbre and the sound and the tone or the visual of the writer delivering their work exactly as they intended it to be read, to be heard. It’s the intensity that all three create as a final product. The way the words rush out, the way these poems always seem to take a turn, cut a corner so quick you start to get dizzy. And before you know it, it’s cut into something deeper.
I have so much love for the way this poem works, the personification of language, the way it blurs with identity and history and family in ways where there are no seams or clear cut lines. There is no dictionary definition, and no way to separate the person/people/memories from the language and present it as objective, as unadorned fact, an intangible item untouched by stereotype and history. There is no uncomplicated way to talk about language, but there are intense and bright and powerful ways to bring it to life.
Visit Button Poetry’s YouTube channel to listen to the poem.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
Selections from a Small Book of Questions
poetry from Chen Chen
I am still lost in this poem by Chen Chen. The form (the poet answering self-imposed questions) is so clear, so effortless, it creates multiple angles of entry into the heart of the content. To be queer within a family, within a culture, and how that changes how you think about death, how you think about yourself outside yourself, because that sort of personal removal from your own presence is so necessary sometimes. The act of answering our/your own questions can give a sense of calm and a sense of control in the face of a near-miss car accident, a mother who does not see your sexuality as legitimate, and the depthless face of love.
Visit Nat. Brut to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
Six Months after Contemplating Suicide
poetry from Erika L. Sánchez
I love that “contemplating” is the verb we’re left with in the title. It implies that we're really examining how someone's mortality can feel so weighted and at the forefront. So, it’s surprising that the poem is almost ethereal and mythic in its interrogation: “Some days you knelt on coins / in those yellow hours. // You lit a flame // to your shadow / and ate // scorpions with your naked fingers.” The trials that the “you” has put their body through are at once both stunning and powerful. Holding yourself upright while coins imprint your knees, setting fire to anything that creeps behind you, not being concerned with stingers or venom—all of this requires a sense of self-determination through ritual. These rituals require one to take in or be without, and the tension arises from this push/pull of the body interacting with the world. The fantastic imagery allows us to enter the poem with a reverence for how the “you” is still working to connect, even through slight violence.
The ambiguity of the “you” leads us to question who the speaker is addressing. Because of this, we’re implicated in knowing this feeling or knowing someone who knows. We’re called into mediation, brought to the shower-water that drenches. Since we’re connected, we’re called to think about who else needs this reflection. Google says I’ve visited the poem 25 separate times and that speaks to how often I've found someone to share this poem with. The constant enjambment makes this poem sprawl down the page and feel as enclosed as a house sprinkled with soft downpour. How blessed we are to be invited to kiss the goat’s “trembling horns” and come back alive.
Visit Poetry Magazine to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse