sun 14/07/2024

Solmaz Sharif: Customs review - a poetics of exile and return | reviews, news & interviews

Solmaz Sharif: Customs review - a poetics of exile and return

Solmaz Sharif: Customs review - a poetics of exile and return

Wit and tragedy co-exist uneasily in this collection of wandering verse

Sharif performs the airport's pressure(c) Emma Larsson

The language of poetic technique is perhaps weighted towards rupture, rather than reparation: lines end and break, we count beats and stress, experience caesurae (literally ‘cuttings’), and mark punctuation (literally ‘to prick’). Juxtaposition sets things in contradistinction; sonnets have firm boundaries; conservatively, form protects tradition.

Even free-verse was never free: Eliot’s famous formulation included the caveat that a simple meter must always – or cannot help but – haunt the poetic line. Poems, for their formal preservation, depend upon strict border-control.

Customs is Iranian-American poet Solmaz Sharif’s follow up collection to 2016’s Look, and her first published in the UK. It is a book that sardonically acknowledges this traditional poetic repertoire and doubles down by setting its verses in similar zones of pressurised control: the page is an airport terminal, and the lyric voice undergoes a kind of invasive metal-detection; lines navigate admissions and refusals like passport checks; words try desperately to cling to their roots in vast white spaces. Our usual habits – or, indeed, customs – of reading are displaced through poems of exile, fracture, and suspicion: what, exactly, we feel these poems might be hiding from us is a pointed irony.   

Take, for instance, “America”, a reticently introductory proem placed before the first section proper. It is both an exciting arrival and an access-gate to be negotiated – a gnomic, uneasy welcome to a new land: “I had / to. I / learned it. / It was / if.”  The guttering line-work and grammatical rabbit-holes provide an uncertain landing. Our very first sentence, our immediate experience, ends on a misplaced ‘if’, so the hypothetical’s potentiality is also a threat of total discord. Even the title is unsure of things: “America” stands metonymically for a vague – and now etiolating – promise of freedom, but also as an expansively imprecise piece of nomenclature, too general to mean anything real at all. The poem’s mise-en-page appears as a thin, left-justified line sparsely crowded into itself by the blank press of the page-space. That is, through the text’s shape alone, we can sense that voice is at great risk here; the empty whiteness opposite – in other hands a site for imaginative possibility – becomes an imperious, hostile silence.

Customs by Solmaz SharifAfter “America” we read some relatively unsurprising (and a little uninspiring) poems that take another pass at a few passé postmodern concerns, like the proliferations of images, and the contemporary supremacy of simulacra over substance, as in “Now What”: “On Instagram: a man / has bought a ten-foot-by-four- / foot photo of a bridge / he lives // beside”. The poet Edwin Morgan wrote, all the way back in 1972, of “A picture of a picture of a picture”, and while aesthetic tar-pits like Instagram may have intensified the problem, it’ll take some truly radical writing to justify any reiteration of our culture’s long-standing – and erstwhile bemoaned – Droste Effect.  

Occasionally, there are attempts to squeeze the profound from the parochial via that lingering vogue for listless asyndetic listing, as in “Beauty”:

Cleaning out the sink drain

The melted cheese

The soggy muesli

My life can pass like this

As we’ll see, Sharif is more than capable of writing poems with a biting poetic technique and linguistic precision, so this method of po-faced cataloguing is disappointing. Better are the poems that turn a hint into a deft satirical stab. “Visa”, for example:

This will be the last I write of it directly, I say each time.
This is a light that lights everything dimly.
All my waiting at this railing.
All my writing is this squint.

Squinting is good word because it is, simultaneously, a way to see more clearly (a defence against darkness or glaring sun), a way to blur the world into vague shapes, and that threatening physiognomy of suspicion. And, as Sharif says, it is her writing itself that adopts this mode of perception, delineating a practice that is self-critical, inquisitive, and possibly blinded by light (of Iranian sun and American airport interrogation).  The fact that, as the poem itself notes, ‘Visa’ comes from the Latin videre, "to see", spotlights the whole poem with a vicious ambiguity: that, for some, being truly seen and being unjustly watched are two sides of a flipped coin.

Section II begins with a long poem, and is the most searingly successful writing in Customs. Its title, “Without Which”, announces that we are dwelling not in the dubious world of “lived experience”, but in the language that makes up our true personal world: in the ever-shifting grounds of grammar; the prepositions and syntax that unreliably put us in our place; the ambiguity inherent in even our most basic parts of speech. This forensic inspection is carried through the entire poem (no mean feat at 22 pages), which explores the anxiety of placelessness, and the frustrated desire for home:


Smelling the dried dill,
the day-old, slick fish

even my hems wet
with the gutters of the kingdom

I am of–

This is serious verbal (and non-verbal) play, glimmering of Samuel Beckett’s end-of-life linguistic disintegrations. But, unlike Beckett’s exiled bodies, Sharif talks of places she could point to on a map, or else return to. Not only does the language of “Without Which” cut itself off, gutter out, or otherwise fail pointedly, it is beset with these double square brackets seen above, functioning like musical notation of obscure purpose. It is a poem interested not so much with voicelessness as being unvoiced, of impeding our means of communication as we operate in between languages and – via the polysemous symbol of the airport terminal – between worlds.  

The sequence ends, in fact, with a wordless page totally covered in black ink. In lesser hands this could be put down to a cheap bit of shock-value; but because “Without Which” takes silence – and all the difficult variations of silence that are possible – so seriously, the stunt seems justified. It is when Sharif is dwelling on and in these linguistic minutiae of grammar, punctuation and syntax that her writing is most persuasively far-reaching, and the abrupt black-out that ends the sequence is the uncomfortable – but natural – terminal-point of her self-interrogation. It is, as another poem, “The End of Exile”, has things: “A without which / I have learned to be.”

Lyric poetry’s custom – right back to its origins in the myth of Philomel and her own infamous un-voicing – is to make a kind of beauty out of pain, and, perhaps, attempt some reparation for that pain. Sharif is, in many ways, performing the painful pressure of the hyphen, of being not just a poet, but an Iranian-American poet (to which she is referred on the book’s back-cover). As critic Christopher Ricks has previously pointed out, it is the unique quality of a hyphen that it at once connects two words and pushes them apart. Sharif gives us a poetry (and a person) caught at the adjunct between two possibilities, the border at which ambiguity (that most faithful repository for poets through the ages) can be weaponised. But it is the beauty of Customs that, in standing at this boundary, we can catch the light beyond.

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