As the dead, so I come
to the city I am of.
- from “The End of Exile”
Solmaz Sharif firmly established herself as one of the foremost poets in America with her first collection, Look, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Few debuts experience such universal acclaim. With Sharif’s new book, Customs, it is more clear than ever that the author possesses a keen understanding of the contemporary moment and a mastery of the page. As the title suggests, Customs is concerned most often with the liminal space, particularly that of the customs area in international airports. This theme informs poems that resonate all the more powerfully as the global pandemic persists and people worldwide struggle to reimagine how to navigate shared spaces.
Customs opens with a remarkable statement of identity and exclusion. The first poem, “America,” is visually and verbally sparse. It contains only 35 words, including several repeated phrases. The poem begins with the confession “I had/to. I/learned it,” then echoes the phrase in the closing lines, “I learned/it. I/had to.” The effect of this mirror is immense, bookending the poem with the necessity of assimilation as an act of survival. And still, “America” is situated as the only poem outside the three contained sections that make up the collection. It is both the first iteration of Sharif’s identity we encounter and the one that most wholly emphasizes the function of “Americanness” as a gatekeeping mechanism, one that perpetuates unbelonging for so many immigrants living in the United States.
The first contained section begins with an epistolary poem addressed to Aleph. In the opening lines, the speaker invokes Ovid to explain that they will “have no last words./This is what it means to die/among barbarians.” The remainder of this brief poem confronts the prejudice assigned to language before ending with a remarkable inversion of Biblical myth: “…ever since/I first heard them say Philistine/I’ve known I am Goliath/if I am anything.” The poem sets the stage for the remainder of the section, which takes a hard look at the challenges of existing in exile, of growing accustomed to the comforts of America, and of conflicting feelings around claiming a home to which the speaker cannot return.
I was most struck by the second section, which features only two poems: “Without Which” and “The Master’s House.” Sharif ends the first section with a poem titled “The End of Exile,” suggesting that the second section takes place during a return to Iran. “Without Which,” the first poem in the section, spans twenty pages and makes strong use of white space. Throughout the poem, Sharif employs brackets and short stanzas which stand in stark contrast to the mostly empty page. The effect is profound, emphasizing the speaker’s inability to fully reconcile with their return to Iran. There are gaps in memory and in speech which further exacerbate the liminality that exudes throughout the collection. “No crueller word than return./No greater lie.//The gates my open but to return./More gates built inside,” the speaker laments toward the end of the poem, stressing the difficulty inherent to connecting with a space that has existed, for much of the speaker’s life, entirely in memory. Sharif juxtaposes this expansive and non-traditional form with “The Master’s House,” a poem that employs litany and anaphora across two pages to capture the compounding sensation of comprises one makes in order to survive, to belong.
Customs is a book about one of the more pervasive and complex communities in America, those living in exile from their homelands. In that respect, the poems resonate across generations and impress the long-term effects of unbelonging. But amidst the pandemic, Customs also aptly articulates a shared sensation afflicting readers across the world. Many of us are learning what it means to exist in isolation and to reimagine spaces that have passed from familiar to foreign. The layered experience of reading Sharif’s poems in the current moment is uniquely cathartic, and something from which many of us will benefit.