The Poetry Project

On Customs by Solmaz Sharif

Review by Kyle Carrerro Lopez

Solmaz Sharif is a poet who has mastered the interplay between lyric beauty and political seriousness, demonstrating through fastidious technique that neither need be sacrificed for the sake of the other. How in the world do you follow a pivotal book like Look, Sharif's poetic repurposing of the U.S. Department of Defense’s dictionary? The collection begins with “America,” a rhythmic homage to Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” and an introductory shoutout which recurs later in the poem “Persistence of Vision: Gwendolyn Brooks.” These gestures of tribute, tender and respectful, make Sharif’s moments of greatest intensity and nerve that much more affecting; in “The Otherwise,” she writes, “I said what I said and stayed / saying / what I came to say / long after the people left.” My unserious inner voice responds to that first line with “okay NeNe Leakes!” while my reviewer brain marvels at the plainspoken confidence of such a declaration. Customs comes out swinging and does not stop; Customs scrutinizes widely and without mercy, presenting even fundamental writing techniques like description or metaphor as potent subjects with which to reckon.

One of the collection’s most pointed subjects of scrutiny may be the archetypal poet: the poet’s habits, ways of seeing, and modes of being in the world. In “The Otherwise,” Sharif writes:

For years I wrote of the bumps

left by the tanks
churning over her roads
as braille messages from the martyrs,

which meant I missed it entirely,
the only

my mother’s face turned out
the passenger window,

just looking.

In focusing on terrain—trying to create work which solely shows rather than tells, perhaps—the poem’s speaker fails to appreciate the mother’s emotional resonance directly before them, which, one could argue, is to fail at showing up to the work of humanity. What earthbound messages, what social semiotics, might go ignored in the search for messages from these divine martyrs? Here and elsewhere, Customs challenges the reader to remain present and keep from getting too lost in poeticizing.

This idea of a potential ugly side to moving and thinking like a poet recurs again in “Without Which,” a poem divided in a manner reminiscent of Ovidian fragments; Sharif mentioned Ovid’s poems of exile as an influence during a recent online reading and conversation hosted by poet Douglas Kearney and the University of Minnesota. One section reads:

Like, I’ve decided,

is the cruelest word.

To step outside of my door
and hope to see
something like a life,
something passably me,


like the cage of canaries baba put out
to sun in the Shiraz courtyard, the birds
dropping dead onto the shit-covered newsprint
when a cat slunk by.

Here, like offers a means of centering the self. It almost says: this thing I’m seeing is similar to this other thing I’ve seen or felt; the relations I’m drawing will help make any conversation about me, even when it isn’t me who suffers, but the birds. This instance of poet meta-commentary is equal parts cutting and bold coming from within a leading press’s poetry collection, and Sharif pulls it off by being as truthful and frank as possible with her lines. June Jordan said that “poetry means taking control of the language of your life,” and Sharif shows us this ought to include default languages of sameness and comparison.

Critic Mostafa Heddaya problematizes comparison as a tool of arts analysis in an essay for Artforum: “All comparative methods can be seen as special cases of a general ‘associative faculty,’ prone to narcissistic overinvestment in seizing and dwelling upon the disparate as one.” Although Heddaya focuses chiefly on the curation and juxtaposition of visual art, his critique could readily apply to suboptimal instances of written simile and metaphor in poetry, or even non-written versions of comparison in other art forms. One moment in “Dear Aleph” comes to mind, here: “Empathy means / laying yourself down / in someone else’s chalk lines / and snapping a photo.” In the eyes of someone who would take such a photo, the resulting image becomes a piece of ‘protest art,’ in this case a way of centering oneself as the lead in the story of another’s death. It’s difficult to imagine a more narcissistic form of comparison—if an impulse that stems from an urge to do good can end up producing more harm, it may be necessary to collectively reimagine how we support and stand up for one another.

It’s easy to picture Sharif’s metaphorical chalk lines snapshot actually happening in a climate like our current one that so readily rewards the commodification of others’ deaths with clout. Memes involving Breonna Taylor proliferated for months after her murder, with each iteration progressively having less and less to do with the initial calls to action. There’s an NFT series of pixelated, varying George Floyd avatars called “Floydies” being sold online, which its creators have written also comes with “an N-word pass.” This collection rails against a world wherein such things can find embrace.

Customs grapples with many customs of polite society, including empathy, the idealization of which is itself a custom many producers and consumers of the arts seem to uphold as central to a personal ethic. But what are the bounds of empathy? Might I set myself up for overstepping by believing I truly understand another’s experience just by watching a film or reading a bit about it? That which isn’t recorded in letters is of equal or greater importance as that which is. The poems’ in-built silences work to punctuate or complicate, and I’m reminded of how poet Stéphane Mallarmé explores the unspoken as a way to approach the edge of expression in the prose poem Igitur, wherein the titular protagonist regards language as limiting, anachronistic, and standing in the way of an absolute; he closes shut an open book, symbolically silencing the customary record and suggesting that words cannot be trusted to say all there is to say. An illustrative example of silence used effectively in Customs appears on page 47 of “Without Which,” a wordless white space populated solely with three pairs of closing brackets (]]) which echo sounds of knocking on the preceding page.

None of this means to suggest that camaraderie or solidarity are impossible through gestures toward ‘empathy,’ but rather that we should grow to respect that there are certain things which one person cannot possibly know in the same way another does, and to embrace these differences not as points of polarization, but as reminders of our inherent perspective shortcoming. We can ask better questions, and potentially even reach richer answers, when operating from a place of comfort with unknowing.

Customs passes a magnifying glass over numerous normalcies of late capitalist, individualistic sentiment and character, continuously drawing the reader toward really looking at each crumb of that which constitutes the world in which we live. A poem like “Self-Care” so elegantly skewers the idea that gluttonous consumerism can be a salve for systemic problems with all of the spur-sharp lyricism you expect from Sharif, and not without humor: “Have you looked / yourself in the mirror / and found the blessed halo // of a ring light in each iris? / Have you been content enough / being this content?” I appreciate, additionally, her continual candor in this book and its surrounding interviews about the difference between on-the-ground movement work and the work of poetry; one comment that stuck with me from that same University of Minnesota reading and conversation was Sharif’s acknowledgment of her positionality as a tenure-track assistant professor who has not been a part of organizing in the streets in some time. The collection does what it needs to do and no more, earning trust via admission of its limits.

#268 – Spring 2022