April 13, 2017 | Arts and Culture
the language of resistance
in praise of solmaz sharif’s poetry
Language is powerful. Some of this power derives from its destructive consequences. In today’s political landscape, we are clearly witnessing one such harmful capability of language: its ability to conceal the truth and deny reality. “Alternative facts” is a phrase that serves as a smokescreen for what should be called blatant lies. This term possesses a connotation of legitimacy due to the theft of the word “fact.” Other types of jargon and innuendo carry out this kind of deception all the time. Another phrase that has bothered me for a long time is “enhanced interrogation,” which sounds somewhat sophisticated and therefore wears the guise of acceptability, but which in reality is torture.
Political systems and militaries often use language to hide the truth. In this way, they can cover up objectionable and immoral acts, and powerful institutions can get away with terrible things. How does one deal with such dishonest manipulations of language?
Solmaz Sharif offers one answer to this problem. She masterfully and unflinchingly pushes back against the language of the military in her first collection of poetry, “Look”, by repurposing the words and phrases originally meant to obscure the impact of war on people’s lives. The book begins with the definition of “look” from the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, which is: “In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.” Following this definition is the book’s title poem, which begins with the phrase, “It matters what you call a thing,” and ends with the line, “Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.”
Throughout the poems in the book, terms from the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms appear in all capital letters. Some, like LOOK and SHELTER, are common English words that are taken and given an uncommon definition for military purposes in the dictionary. Other terms, like SIMULTANEOUS ENGAGEMENT and INITIAL ASSESSMENT, are pieces of jargon that blur the real details of the situations, objects, or occurrences they refer to. Both types of terms serve to fog up the truth.
Yet, Sharif casts a piercing light through this fog to foreground the human element. She focuses on the human beings who dream and hope and aspire, many of whom have their lives upended or destroyed by war. In certain poems, she recovers the everyday words taken by the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms and gives back to them their resonant human meanings, as she does in the title poem. In other poems, she takes the jargon of the military and makes the technical-sounding terms invade human scenes, such as a family going to the movies, a couple preparing a meal, and a dinner party. For example, in the poem “Dear Intelligence Journal,” which describes a dinner party, the speaker says, “Extended my LETTER OF OFFER AND ACCEPTANCE / to the DESIRED INTERNAL AUDIENCE.” The first military phrase most likely replaces the word “invitation,” while the second phrase most likely replaces the word “guest.” In lines like these throughout her poems, Sharif reveals how military jargon obscures the truth. Human emotions still radiate from these poems despite the intrusion of the technical words, which serves to show that the human details are what the technobabble often blocks out.
Additionally, Sharif also seemingly redefines military jargon in ways that focus on the human pain and suffering, which the original terms cannot convey. For example, in one poem called “Contaminated Remains,” the speaker says, “DEAD SPACE / fridges full / after the explosion the hospital / places body parts / out back where crowds / attempt to identify those / who do not answer their calls / by an eyeball / a sleeve of a favorite shirt / a stopped wristwatch.” Regardless of the actual definition of DEAD SPACE in the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, the juxtaposition of that phrase against the heartbreaking, painful, grisly images of people trying to identify their friends and family members from the remains of their bodies shows how insufficient the military term is to convey the human suffering and tragedy of warfare. In that same poem, the speaker says, “DESTRUCTION RADIUS / limited to blast site / and not the brother abroad / who answers his phone / then falls against the counter / or punches a cabinet door.” These lines point out that the practice of measuring destruction by square miles ignores the impact the destruction has on the people whose family members are injured or killed.
The fact that Sharif uses the terms from the military dictionary in different ways shows her skilled craftsmanship and gives the entire book deep complexity. Her skill is further evident by the variety of formal techniques used throughout the collection. The poems are quite distinct. One reads as a series of letters from which words and phrases have been omitted, and we as readers can try to fill in the gaps without being completely certain about what details have been lost. Another poem paints a vivid scene as its lines of text form a wave pattern down the page through their different positions from the left margin. Each one of these poems succeeds in hitting the heart and rattling the brain to think differently about warfare. Some are darkly funny as they convey a sharp critique, such as “Perception Management,” which lists the names of several military operations, including “TOMBSTONE PILEDRIVER,” “SPRING BREAK,” “DIRTY HARRY,” and “MR. ROGER’S NEIGHBORHOOD.” Certain poems are devastatingly heartbreaking, such as “Theater,” in which the speaker is a man who tries to find safety near a mosque during a battle, but who is soon found and killed.
Sharif is a brilliant writer, and “Look” is a work of fierce intelligence and deep compassion. The book pushes back against the ways in which the language of war masks or ignores the human toll of conflict. Anyone who is interested in politics, poetry, or masterful writing should pick up this book.