More than three million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion. These refugees face an uncertain future, an indefinite period of estrangement from their homes, past lives and cultures. Although the immediate cause of this crisis is the reactionary Russian incursion, its root sources are to be found in the decades-long eruption of imperialist violence by the United States and NATO, which is reaching new levels. and ever more dangerous.
How does the world view the exile, who feels like a stranger in his adopted country? What relationship does a person born in exile have with the cultural heritage of their parents? Customs (2022), the highly anticipated new book of poetry by Solmaz Sharif, probes these and related questions.
Sharif’s own history has oriented her towards issues of nationality and exile. She was born in Istanbul to Iranian parents who were in the process of emigrating to the United States. His first language was English, not his parents’ Farsi. When she was in sixth grade, her family moved to Los Angeles, which has the largest expatriate Iranian population in the world. But, as she said to the Parisian magazine, Sharif felt ostracized by the mostly well-to-do Iranians in Los Angeles, who were more interested than she was in assimilating into American society.
Sharif’s first collection To see(2016) borrowed from U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms highlight the state’s use of jargon and euphemisms to “sanitize” the war, hide its true character, and forestall public opposition to it. The following lines have been widely quoted: “Every day I sit / with the language / they did / of our language / to NEUTRALIZE / the ABILITY OF LOW VALUE ITEMS / like you.” To see received many favorable reviews, especially from the New York Times and Washington Post, and was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry.
Customs, his new volume, also includes images of military violence. But more often than not, the state appears in the person of the policeman or customs official, who decides based on “blood sugar” or “relative level of disdain for vermin”. Wealth (and, by implication, inequality) is another recurring theme. Images of secluded estates and servants’ bells contrast with those of laborers and peddlers. In its references to gateways and global corporations, the book also gives a sense of the international integration of economic and social relations. When Sharif writes about her own experience, she does not neglect to place it in this larger context, which also includes an understanding of history. In short, these poems adopt a laudable and expansive view of the world.
The poem “Now What” is emblematic of Sharif’s approach. When she looks into a jar of garlic butter (which is actually made from soybean oil), she sees “a relief of workers, sickles, / fields of soybeans”. She immediately connects these workers to what could be her own family history:
We were tanners
pushed to the edge
once, by the stench, the bubble of the vats
of flesh and skin that relaxes,
when the city was shooting,
bucket by leather bucket, his
well water. Then we worked
oil offices of the
British. Then, revolution.
This series of concrete and telling images contains a glimpse of the industrial and political development of an entire nation. The historical significance of these lines, juxtaposed with their economy of expression, is impressive. In an implicit challenge to the reader, the title of the poem poses the question of how this story will unfold.
The dense and concentrated “House of the Master” addresses virtually every major theme in the book and shows how they are interconnected. Issues of national and social boundaries come to life in the image of a strip search by a customs officer and in a father’s comment that people from the “red states” are nice to you “as long as you don’t move in not next to it”. Then, and not coincidentally, comes the images of the wealthy, dining on bone china and “hiding their rot” with “lavender sachets and cedar lining”. The poetess humorously expresses her profound, if ineffective, opposition to this social stratum: “Pouring diuretics into your coffee and thinking that it erodes the state. Linked to these issues is that of the poet’s estrangement from her parents’ language, “English being your first defeat”.
Here and there, notes of doubt and discouragement echo throughout the poem. Towards the beginning, the poet does not know how to proceed, “with barely a voice, a muse, a model”. In the end, she no longer remembers the goal which she endures with difficulty in achieving. These notes also find echo in other poems, such as one in which Sharif rejects the idea of translating the famous Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad into English. But overall you feel that Sharif’s enjoyment of the material and social world, and his smoldering opposition to injustice, provide him with sufficient motivation to continue.
A weak moment is “Learning Persian,” a series of politically charged words written phonetically (“deek-tah-tor/behn-zeen,” “ahm-pee-ree-ah-lizm”). The poem fails to provide meaningful insight, and its humor rings a bit hollow.
Most of the poems of Customs are relatively brief, but two longer poems give Sharif space for more sustained reflection on his themes. The length of the poems, naturally, detracts from their sense of immediacy, but provides ample space for Sharif’s broad perspective. The longer poems also include more personal reflections than the others, which accentuates the lasting impressions they make.
In “Without What”, Sharif describes how life has accustomed her to letting go, leaving behind even a sense of loss. Yet, if she feels like a foreigner during her visits to Iran, she nevertheless wonders what her life would have been like if she had lived there. She gazes at a door she would have answered if she had stayed. “Would you hit for me? / I ask the neighbour. The poem is almost melancholy, but also lucid.
“An Otherwise” finds the poet’s mother removing politically inconvenient books from the shelves of a school library in preparation for the Shah’s visit. We can see the opposition this repression generates as the students imagine themselves pointing guns at the Shah. “You were reminded that everything // was owned by the West,” Sharif writes. However, Iran is also a land of ancient poems set to melodies sung by his parents. It is “a basin / lined // with conifers, / with needles falling // into the water”. Drawing on political and personal factors, the poem ends with an implied threat of rebellion.
Customs continues the political engagement of Sharif’s first collection and reminds us that political poetry doesn’t need to be didactic or stilted. Sharif’s healthy opposition to imperialism is palpable everywhere. Additionally, his placement of personal themes within a larger social and historical context enriches the insights the poems offer. These poems sometimes make us cringe, but also remind us of the pleasures of life. Customs is an intelligent and encouraging response to the current moment that deserves a wide readership.