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A Defense Department dictionary helped this poet write in the language of war

Solmaz Sharif says she has always been obsessed with state-sponsored language. But it wasn’t until 10 years ago when she stumbled onto a Defense Department dictionary that she began to write what would become an entire book of poetry using military terms. Her book, “Look,” is as much about language as it about war, she says.

“I felt a need to interrogate the violence that is happening as a result of war by using the very language of war. I think any violence that’s committed against human beings is premeditated in violence against language itself.”

In a series of poems called “Personal Effects,” Sharif writes:

Daily I sit
with the language
they’ve made

of our language

like you.

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Sharif was born in Turkey to Iranian parents, but moved to the United States when she was an infant. She weaves tales from her family, with news stories and human rights reports to create a tapestry of victims in Iraq, prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, soldiers at war, veterans who have returned home and grieving spouses.

“I tried to make the border between my family’s narrative and the narratives that are currently happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and this country as permeable as possible, because that’s really how we experience them. I think it’s more helpful to draw connections between these disparate lives, disparate voices, rather than keep them separate and readily identifiable.”

Sharif says she has become increasingly disturbed as she’s watched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and seen what it has done to language in this country. She said she first took note after the 9/11 attacks, when prisoners were suddenly called “enemy combatants,” which she says completely changed the judicial system and the protections people are guaranteed. “Just legal rebranding of a human body can decide whether that body will live or die.”

She also worries that language has made people indifferent to realities of war.

“It’s incredibly disturbing to me and incredibly dangerous. And I think it’s a problem we come up against again and again with any instance of atrocity or warfare. What does a nation gain by calling cells in Guantanamo ‘single occupancy units’ versus ‘solitary confinement’? Why is it that we insist on creating a language that distances and nullifies the violence that we’re actually committing?”

Sharif’s poem “Lay” is a jumble of conflicting images, from peaceful to extremely violent. She said she wanted to call up memories of lullabies or prayers, but also show how the military uses the word.

“I was trying to imagine what happens to this word in a violent context and put those things side-by-side as they actually are.”

Last week the National Book Foundation announced that Sharif’s “Look” was one of 10 collections being considered for the 2016 National Book Award for poetry.”


to sleep
to rest
to waste
across a stretcher
across a shoulder
over a leg
beneath an arm
in a shroud
in a crib
on top of a car
chained to a bumper
beneath a bridge
in town square
in the fountain
in the Tigris
under water boiled from smart bombs
in a cellar
in backseat of car counting streetlamps strobing overhead
under bomblets
under tendrils of phosphorus
in a burnt silhouette
on a cot
under a tent
still holding your breath
beneath dining table
beneath five stories
in a hole

Born in Istanbul to Iranian parents, Solmaz Sharif holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and New York University. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Boston Review and others. The former managing director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, her work has been recognized with scholarships from NYU and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference,an NEA fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship. She received a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. Her first collection of poetry called “LOOK” has been long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry. She is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.