Look, Solmaz Sharif

Graywolf Press, $16.00

“It matters what you call a thing,” warns Solmaz Sharif in the first line of the first poem, the title poem of the book. Even as casual a word as “look” has been co-opted, the author reminds us in the book’s epigraph: “In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.” This definition comes from the United States Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a work that not only provides language for the author, but also serves as a source of inspiration for the entire book, which takes on such issues as homeland security, the imprisonment of detainees, and drone warfare. The titles of the poems reflect the collision of civilian and military language: “Force Visibility,” “Vulnerability Study,” “Personal Effects.”

Each poem makes us question our assumptions, question the words we believe we fully understand. When she writes, “Let me LOOK at you,” for example, the capitalization alerts us that this is a military term. The use here is further complicated by the fact that it refers to a lover. With this dual usage of “look” and “LOOK,” Sharif creates disassociation—not only is the term used by lovers, and by the military for mine warfare, but it reminds the reader of the use of drones. A “pilot” in a trailer in Las Vegas uses the camera mounted on a drone to decide whether or not to fire on a possible target in Mazar-e-Sharif, the poem reminds us, with sixteen seconds passing from the time the trigger is pulled and the Hellfire missile goes off.  That pilot’s “look” through a camera determines whether the possible target is friend or foe, child or dog, dead or alive.

The poem “Perception Management,” consisting of nothing but a D.O.D. list of military operations (such as “GLAD TIDINGS OF BENEVOLENCE”), provides the most alienating experience in the book. The counterbalance to such “benevolent” language are the “Reaching Guantanamo” letter poems, though they are so heavily erased by censorship that ultimately they become yet another form of alienation: “Lately my hair , even / my skin .” Once again, those who control language control perception.

The very cover of the book will make you uncomfortable. It features “The First Photograph,” taken circa 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Here is the beginning of the surveillance state, the cover implies. Here is the first use of a machine to replicate and enhance the eye. Here begins the use of technology to surveille, to see every citizen as guilty until proven innocent. The closing poem, “Drone,” a list with each item preceded by a colon, maps out where that mindset has led us:

: I say Hello NSA when I place a call

 : somewhere a file details my sexual habits

: some tribunal may read it all back to me

LOOK is an angry, fearless book, one that uses language to expose what has been done to it and us. It raises uncomfortable questions, ones Americans would rather not hear: “is this what happens to a brain born into war.” Solmaz Sharif has written a searing indictment of what we have allowed ourselves to become.