ANGELINE KEK WRITES — A dwelling, a city, a country — a space synonymous with belonging. Wherever you go, you can relish in the comfort of a home to return to.
What happens when that is no longer true?
Solmaz Sharif is an Iranian American poet, whose family immigrated to Alabama when she was a newborn, and then Los Angeles when she was 11. Growing up, Sharif learned that the notions of community and inclusion did not extend to her. Met with exclusion even from fellow Iranian Americans, she found displacement in every circle from which she sought assimilation.
In Customs (2022), a narrative of exile, disillusionment, and defiance unfolds. Through fierce questioning of power, state, and social conditioning, Solmaz’s latest poems highlight conditions of the U.S. government and society that serve to constrict and control. In a country where freedom is virtue, asphyxiation must be subtle.
Poetry holds a power that is sure and steady. As explained by Solmaz, “I point to the intolerable, and I name it as intolerable. And the idea is to keep doing that until we can’t take it anymore and we all agree we must change it. The revolution is not in the poem itself, but it makes it inevitable.” Ultimately, Solmaz’s writings name the unbearable, hoping to awaken readers to the ways in which we are all being imprisoned.
Customs opens with “America,” a haunting jazz poem reminiscent of Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool (1960), both in rhythm and as extensions of characters stuck in the system. The speaker recites in a defeated tone: “One more / thing. Eat / it said. / It felt / good. I / was dead. / I learned / it. I / had to.” The named price of a new life is self-erasure — stepping into a melting pot that only wants to churn out the same gray mulch. A balancing act: how do you become “American” without giving yourself away?
Post-immigration, does one now have two homes? Traded one country for another? Ended up with none? Or does immigration never end — a perennial state of being? For Sharif, “home” is only imagined: “I returned to Iran for the fourth time and lost all sense of belonging. There was nothing that felt ‘mine.’” Exile is not only physical. It can be done through barriers of unfamiliarity, of language, of disillusionment. In the end, there is no return to a life unlived except inside the mind.
Readers have come to expect certain tropes about war, homeland, and the mother-figure from writers of color, whose works are automatically put under the “diasporic” label. Consequently, Sharif seeks to write the mother-figure from a different view — she is not a vehicle for war or cultural lamentations, but a person, a girl with a revolutionary childhood, a woman who left behind a life.
Notably, much of the disdain in Customs is for the poetry industry itself. In America, nothing is unmoored by wealth and power, not even poetry: “Our poets coo. / And beg to be placed in a large room … But he’s a patron. / But he makes a star of us.” As much as the US tries to brand itself as a haven for creative liberty, it works very hard to cultivate a creative ecosystem that only allows for conditional freedom of expression. Artists can make and say what they want, only if they grovel at the feet of institutions for fellowships and funding.
Has freedom always meant performing tricks for patrons of the art?
Angeline Kek is a book reviewer and contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. As a recent graduate from LMU, she majored in English with a concentration in poetry and creative writing. She is interested in poetry and writings that are unhesitatingly honest.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher