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Poems Without a Passport: Solmaz Sharif’s “Customs”

“Sharif’s style throughout Customs is neither bland nor baroque. It has the directness of what one overhears while waiting in line to cross on foot an international border or passing through immigration at an airport. It is a stylization of how people talk in such circumstances.”

The opening poem of the astute poet Solmaz Sharif’s Customs is worth reproducing in its entirety.

Dear Aleph,
Like Ovid, I’ll have no last words.
This is what it means to die
Among barbarians. Bar bar bar
Was how the Greeks heard
Our speech—sheep, beasts—and so we became
Barbarians. We make them reveal
The brutes they are by the things
We make them name. David,
They tell me, is the one
One should aspire to, but ever since
I first heard them say Philistine
I’ve known I am Goliath.

This book launches with an act of speech rooted in the most famous first letter, aleph, prized for its humility by virtue of accepting not being the first letter of the Bible. The poem begins with this Semitic abjad of a title, taken from a writing system that depends on skill at inference, a taste for which happens to be one of Sharif’s best writerly qualities. Yet this austere poem, while all about the power of inference, is also about the opposite of humility. The script is flipped in a historical-religious yet contemporary exposition of othering, in which Goliath becomes the doomed hero to aspire to.

Why not, if you are already marked as the barbarian? Sharif’s reversal of expectations is brought off with placid, acid sass. Her tone is what makes this poetry sing. In lesser hands, the fated giant’s plaint would come off as one more angry accusation about dominance and subservience. But this speaker does not get ruffled. She and her ancestors have had a long time to reflect on historical injustice, sifting it down until it becomes simultaneously a matter of the utmost seriousness, and a black cosmic joke. Political poetry at its best is inspired backtalk with a purpose. Here, the purpose is remembrance.

Nothing comes to pass in Customs, poetically speaking, by happenstance. In a 2016 interview in The Paris Review, Sharif explains a guiding principle:

“It’s exciting for me to think of poets that are allowing their politics to also be shaped by these aesthetic considerations, and wondering when the poetic will lead you to the kind of political surprise that a dogmatic approach wouldn’t allow. These are the artists that live on the fringes of what is aesthetically and politically accepted.”

That is the trick: walking the line with finesse. That fringe is where creativity happens. Seldom is one going to badger another person into following their political or social thought through a persistent harangue broken into lines. Myriad political essayists, as well as artists, also fall into that mental trap, thinking if I just explain this hard enough, I’ll get my point across and force agreement, thereby banishing subtlety and bypassing reasonable doubt. Too many poets at present are taking exactly that approach, earnest and furious, speaking stern words at a high volume. But one must instead beguile, seduce, persuade, using wit, when possible—that is, if one possesses any. The Greek word kōmos, the etymological root of comedy, means “to revel.” One might as easily say reveal. How often is one afforded the luxury of reveling in another’s artful thought until it reveals an unsuspected truth? Sharif avers that her poetry is “diagnostic, rather than curative…I just trust and know that certain lives need to be looked at very closely, and need to be grieved, and need to be considered.”

By the end of Sharif’s poem, whatever our politics, we might well be asking ourselves whether we are the barbarians. Or, better still, whether we might like to be. Because in her linguistic syllogism of bar, bar, bar, Goliath, fate aside, seems the one to aspire to become. He understands how things are and how they might yet be. Yet the matter is not precisely up for discussion, for we is we. And if you are not we, her poem leaves you to contemplate just who you are. That is called thought jiu jitsu.

The crucial words in Sharif’s explanation are the poetic will lead you to the kind of political surprise that a dogmatic approach wouldn’t allow. Can it be disputed that dogma is the enemy of art? And vice versa? If that premise about dogma is to be disputed, let it be disputed undogmatically, as in a duel. Draw blood if you can or walk away if you prefer. Or engage in serious revelry, as in a rap battle or playing the dozens.

It would be overstating the case to say that all poetry is political by default. Each mode of writing for a public excels at different things in different measure. That is what makes it is a genre. The machine made of its particular components is better applied to some uses than others. One can make music of a sort out of a bundle of dry spaghetti noodles, but that does not make the bundle inherently suited to the case. The long-held verities of poetry as either lyric, dramatic, or narrative still generally hold as categories. And, in our time, lyric is in the ascendant—narrative poetry significantly displaced (though not replaced) by film and novel. Dramatic, by theater and opera. But lyric, including all short form experiments from Dadaist to post-structuralist to the contrary, has not given up its claim on intimacy, interiority, and music in tandem as primary raisons d’être.

It is more precise to say that lyric poetry tends or gravitates toward the social, whether that social be the beloved in a Shakespearean sonnet, or the we (viz Sharif above) in a poem about prejudice and oppression. Either way, it begins in “I.” Such a poem travels from the privacy of the self to make connection with the reader, and, in that journey, short or long, it may end up connecting with the world entire. Skillfully played, it can shake the very foundations of the earth. That does not mean its ideal rhetoric is hortatory in nature. Best to keep it personal at the point of origin. A cri de Coeur may wake up more people in the middle of the night than the town crier.

Sharif begins “Without Which,” the brilliant long poem (21 pages) at the heart of this collection with just such a gesture.

I have long loved what one can carry.
I have long left all that can be left
behind in the burning cities and lost
even loss—not cared much
or learned to. I turned and looked
and not even salt did I become.

“I” is the poem’s first word, and “loved” is the fourth. The voice is one of sorrow in the face of “loss,” of solitude and leaving things behind. How much more personal and emotional can it be? Yet by line three, we (yes, we, for always in Sharif’s poems we are implicated) are introduced to “the burning cities”—the social-political scene. Biblical force, ergo the history of the tribe, sits behind line six, in “not even salt did I become” (Lot’s wife). How quickly this speaker enmeshes us in her personal drama, which turns out to be our drama by extension.

Throughout, the poet flickers between this sorrowing, self-questioning I and an implied, unnamed other, asking implicitly for succor.

what of me I can’t stand to look at,
what of me I’d never want recognized
by whoever will clear out my drawers,
whoever does such a thing at the end
of a life.

In the speaker’s distressed self-abasement, so deep she cannot even stand to look at herself, she is embarrassed to the extent she wishes to remain forever anonymous, unsought after. At the same time, a tacit wish for communion is expressed by the inclusion of “whoever.” The evocation of that nameless Samaritan is a veiled expression of hope that one, no matter how low, might be included in the social “we,” a collective comprised of many whoevers.

The poem progresses to physical intimacy. “Before you came, I hadn’t touched another/in years. It was unintentional. Frugal.” Such passionate denial of the deepest need: human connection. Such parsimony of affect, as if in a world of strife, accidental harmony is the most one could hope for. Despite herself, the moment deepens. “You looked at me/looking at your things.” Thereby we arrive at the reciprocity of a double gaze. And only then, at the point of genuine contact, incipient communication, is it possible to contemplate social reality.

I touched the satin squares.
I touched the satin scar
where you had been cut.

Now the speaker, in need of ministering, has become the Samaritan. It is not even necessary that we, the readers, be hectored with the details of where that cut came from, who administered it, and why. Racism, misogyny, blind hate? Ancient grudges played out over centuries? Geopolitical reality? A bar fight? It doesn’t matter. We can fill in the blanks. Maybe we have even been there ourselves, in another land, on another occasion, in different or similar circumstances of isolation, surrounded by people of wrongheaded intentions. The poet trusts in our intelligence and innate compassion, which she must merely awaken. At that point, we apply understanding and compassion, as one applies balm to a cut. That is social poetry. I could not help but think of the “blank writing” made famous by Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Sharif’s style, here and throughout Customs, is neither bland nor baroque.  It has the necessary directness of what one overhears while waiting in line to cross on foot an international border or passing through immigration at an airport. It is a stylization of how people talk in such circumstances.

In that context, a simple phrase like “satin scar” stands out in as much relief as the ritual scarifying of a Masai tribesman.

Other brief lines, further along, detonate, tossed in the most offhand manner.

palm bent
to the street
by a tank.


Would you have knocked for me?
I ask the neighbor.
I have been, he said.
Then I felt his knocking
Inside my chest.

Thus ends the poem, with tentative approach, a shy and hypothetical communion, which is the most than can be had under such closeted circumstances. This is a political poem, but the author does not have to yell about it. Her writing quietly manifests its point of view, and in that lies its power. Sharif lets the poem be a poem, and doesn’t dragoon it into service as a manifesto.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. Johnny is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University.

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