If a Poem Is a Border We Can Cross – Michigan Quarterly Review

If a Poem Is a Border We Can Cross

Homeland is where one’s wake was held
and so—


No crueler word than return.
No greater lie.

The gates may open but to return.
More gates were built inside.
 (“Without Which,” Customs, Solmaz Sharif)

Solmaz Sharif is an award winning Iranian-American poet. Look, her first collection, was a finalist for the National Book Award. In her second collection, Customs, published March 1st by Graywolf Press, there are crossings and guards, mothers and metal. In its own horror, here is America. The speaker travels from the household images of depression to feelings of displacement in Iran and the innumerable, relentless borders in between.

The collection is meticulously sequenced, with images and phrases wandering into succeeding pieces. A selection of Sharif’s poems transport us to the liminality of a border crossing, using the recurring image of a customs officer. In “Social Skills Training,” the speaker shares advice on using disarming language in interactions with a customs officer. “Studies suggest,” says the speaker,” a sweet, humiliating discourse to assuage the guard: ‘How may I help you officer?’” 

Sharif’s use of the prose poetry paragraph form suggests a research abstract. Thoughts and dialogue are placed in italics, displaying a duality of truth and fact, motivating the speaker to explore language in the face of power. The speaker evokes the violence of history with the image of mopping blood, contrasted by the wry observation: “History says we for-/gave the executioner.” The poem ends: “studies suggest Solmaz, have you thanked your executioner today?”

Officers appear later in “Visa,” a dissociative poem, in which the speaker watches themselves go through customs. Here, Sharif describes the arbitrary decision-making processes of officers, drawn to choices by blood sugar or sex drive, writing towards the end: “This will be the last I write of it directly, I say each time.” But he returns, again, in more crossings. 

Repetition and anaphora are responsible for each poem’s cohesion. Take the poem “The Master’s House,” printed opposite a page filled entirely with black ink. The piece uses anaphora, each line, or couplet, beginning with “to,” reminiscent of the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. The repetition of the sentence “to disrobe when the agent asks you to,” appears twice as a whole. Images critique colonialism (“to eye the master’s bone china”), and elitism (“to have a dinner party of intellectuals with a bell”). The speaker is wandering, desiring belonging, searching for her name on gravestones. The poem finally critiques man’s view of God as one over Blackjack (“God of/ the small black globe and pixelated eye above the blackjack/ table”)  compared to one over borders (“the metal, toothed pit of Qalandia checkpoint”). Sharif writes “to know no nation will be home until one does.” 

That state, to be “of” and “without,” is a collective theme. In the piece “The End of Exile,” the streets of the city are detached from the speaker: 

To watch play out around me
as theater—

audience as the dead are audience

to the life that is not mine.
Is as not
as never.

Turning down Shiraz’s streets
it turns out to be such

a faraway thing.
A without which
I have learned to be.

Elsewhere, Sharif uses the word “turns” to make the volta literal, unfolding like the city in short line breaks. Read aloud, the short phrases carry a quiet grief, the heaviness expanding in the blank spaces. 

Customs is a collection to reread. My head spun in its many crossings and was grounded by its  repetitions. In my own reading, the adept unfurling of images and themes was best appreciated on a second or third reading. The reader will feel each halt, the waiting, the eyes. In short stanzas and frequent turns, there is space for meditation, for meaning to simmer. 

“The Otherwise,” a poem and the third and last section of the book, spans 11 pages. Some pages contain large blank spaces before the piece returns on the following page with a new structure, making the illusion of divisions. Sharif begins with a story of her mother as a child. She is in Iran, clearing books from the school library in preparation for a visit by the Shah. Located near a British Petroleum refinery, the images of air, lungs, and “sensitive bronchioles” begin to appear and reappear, alongside condemnations of some of the nations who exercised imperial power over Iran in recent history. In some aspects, it is a coming of age piece that features a nebulous and changing understanding of Iran, her parents, and belonging. However, it is also experimental, intangible, a woven consciousness between the speaker and her mother and Iran, splicing and progressing, again we see the “of” and “without:” 

Fuck the British.
The Soviets.
The Shah and the righteous

air of her life,
and bless the lung,
the sensitive bronchioles,

the filagree of finite health

Sharif writes of being other, watching her parents in the front seat of the car, a tape in the deck crumbling and elongating. A trip to Iran where she sees only tank craters, which grieves her mother. The poem’s quick pace is determined by pages of short stanzas. Sharif uses anaphora again here, beginning two pages of several stanzas with “at a gate.” The tension builds. There are guards, questions, a hot bulb above, vendors, people in power building on unmarked graves, and then her mother. Suddenly, Sharif writes: “Enough,” then the poet writes of cyprus trees:

I knew not the poem, only the weather,
I knew not the listening, only this landscape, its one clear channel.

The metal in my teeth caught its frequency.
The iron shavings in my blood pulled towards this otherwise.

Walking to the end of her mother’s stories, the speaker passes, alone, into this in between. With a knife, but with certainty. Here are gates, and here is her mother. The collection ends with blank space.

Customs forces the reader into the liminal, grappling with the power of wealth over the practice of writing and poetry, the blood of imperialism and colonialism, the violations of the police state and borders, and the notions of lineage and shared history. It is a collection to wrestle and reread, to sit within the spaces, to whisper along out loud. 

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