The World and the Self Through Another’s Eyes

Three poets’ different uses of identity remind us that what we see is impacted by the windows out of which we look. Hillel Smith

There’s a school of criticism that prefers to read poems as though the identity of the author doesn’t matter. And there’s another approach that assumes the poet’s identity is paramount and poems can be taken as authentic expressions of the author’s race, gender, religion, or sexuality. Neither approach accounts for the poet’s ability to shape the way identity is expressed in the work. There are many factors to consider. Should the poems construct a narrative, and should the speaker of the poems be depicted playing a roll in that narrative? Should recognizably personal details be included? How much tactile, physical reality should be embodied in the poems? How much personal “voice” should the poems have? One of the first questions a reader tends to ask is: “Who’s writing this, and why?” The answers suggested within the work help to frame how the work will be read. Three recent debut collections by young poets undertake different ways of representing the self within their poetry and using it as a tool to comment on pressing contemporary issues.

In Look, Solmaz Sharif offers a defiant meditation on America’s military actions in the Middle East, anti-Muslim prejudice, and the dehumanizing effects of warfare and violence. She tells stories—of refugees, of detainees, of casualties and survivors–through fragmentary details and scraps of disembodied quotation. Some seem to be drawn directly from her own life and family history, while others seem to be reported or even fictional; but they’re blended together. The speaker of these poems is the daughter of Iranian émigrés, raised in the West, but also a person moving through a war zone, identifying bodies, clearing rubble; an angry observer of America’s post-9/11 landscape from her vantage point in California, but also the lover of an inmate in Guantánamo, writing him tender letters scored with censored white spaces. In effect, she merges her identity with all who have suffered; she makes her voice speak for them all.

One of Sharif’s major concerns is the use and misuse of language by those who wield power. Throughout the book, words and phrases from the Defense Department’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms are incorporated into the text, in all caps. Seemingly benign words take on sinister overtones when cast as military lingo, and the reader is drawn up short, wondering what specific meaning something like “THRESHOLD OF ACCEPTABILITY” or “READY POSITION” must have. Sharif describes a romantic moment in “Dear INTELLIGENCE JOURNAL”:

We were FRIENDLY beneath the gazebo’s LATTICE . . . a LOW VISIBILITY
RADAR was telling me.

The omnipresence of these terms, and the way they break into the text at seemingly random moments, suggests the way the language of warfare—intended to obscure and to distance us from the reality of state-sanctioned violence—infiltrates the language we all use, blurring our perceptions, corrupting our judgment.


The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun’s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article, or click here to read a PDF version of the full article.

Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 3:61-64


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