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Poetry collection 'Customs' is rooted in un-rootedness

Graywolf Press

It seems peculiar that one could get stuck in a state of perpetual mobility.

In theory, movement is the opposite of being stuck. But in America, surveillance can be the punishment for seeking freedom, and to be allowed movement across the country's borders is to be indoctrinated into a set of rules. In her highly anticipated second collection Customs, Solmaz Sharif examines the language of these rules and considers how we can truly get to the other side.

Customs is rooted in un-rootedness; migration, borders, and displacement are constants in Sharif's poems. And reading the book now, while Ukraine burns and millions flee Russia's occupation, her poems feel rooted also in today's moment of volatility. The very first poem "America" begins: "I had / to." Immediately, agency is in question. "I said / sure. One / more thing. One more / thing." Is the act of fleeing surrender or resilience? Is it a way out of a bind or into another?

Whereas in her 2016 debut and National Book Award finalist Look, Sharif pulled words from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to explore how language can be a vessel for violence — in Customs, the stronghold of American language rules even how we see ourselves.

For instance "The End of Exile" begins, "As the dead, so I come / to the city I am of. / Am without." With agency goes ownership — and the performance that we're forced into threatens to last forever. Because what would it mean to return to a past destroyed? Can the burning streets still be ours? Or is it the most ours now than it has ever been — as living "without" becomes the most familiar state of being? In "Visa" Sharif writes:

"As we wait for her to exit customs, our sightline is obstructed by opaque

sliding doors, the twisting hallway behind it, the small convex mirror

hung in the corner in which we catch shapes growing larger, into hair

color, into gait, into age, and finally, as they turn, into kin.

The hours I've stood there, behind that railing."

Railings are a kind of border, separating shadow from presence, separating what we hope will be from what we know will be. And "customs" are of course government agencies that rule, but also rules that frame one's agency. That simple duality of the word is in fact Sharif's most powerful critique. The poem ends:

"This will be the last I write of it directly, I say each time.

This is a light that lights everything and dimly.

All my waiting at this railing.

All my writing is this squint."

It is that surrender to hope — so cursory that you must "squint" even to see the shape of it — that makes us important fools. Because we have already surrendered, and we are strong enough to do it again and again.

In that way, the migrant's lack mindset is her strength and her weakness. The long poem "Without Which" begins with the idea that loss is her basis:

"I have long loved what one can carry.

I have long left all that can be left

behind in the burning cities and lost

even loss — not cared much

or learned to. I turned and looked

and not even salt did I become."

Again, "without" is the thread. The poem, broken up by brackets "]]" throughout, tells the story of perpetual movement, of time passing, of wanting something then wanting nothing then wanting more again. That cycle is the plight of the displaced. But besides the actual act of displacement — of houses and things and bodies — there is also the displacement of the self. Now the American language and custom holds power over it:

"I am without the kingdom


and thus of it.

I am --

even when inside the kingdom --


With nothing to hold on to, where do the displaced end up? If we are always "without" then we must turn within. Cities "burn" and skin turns to "leather" — and as the poem speaks of hardship and the hardened, it warns of performance. To give into language as it exists to conform — appealing, of course, due to its opposition to uncertainty — is a high price for freedom. In fact, it may not be freedom at all. Name your losses, Sharif conveys — even the loss of your agency. Uncertainty finds rest in that act of naming.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.

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