“Sharif masterfully blends, develops, and transforms her imagery throughout Customs in such a seamless and unexpected way that the reader effortlessly follows these gorgeous, golden, and intelligent threads all the way to the brink of epiphany and beyond.”
National Book Award finalist and celebrated poet Solmaz Sharif’s second full-length collection, Customs, has cemented the author as a visionary of contemporary American poetry. Her scathing and much-needed critique of the American experience and the imposition of the English language is brilliant, austere, and, importantly, freeing.
“I learned / it. I / had to.” These lines end the first poem of Customs, titled “America,” and poised to launch the reader into the speaker’s wrenching and intimate journey through the relentlessness of performative social interactions and cultural expectations. These performances take place under the spotlight of the English language and one’s relative comfortability with its use. The first symptom of such performances is, of course, mental illness and the accompanying challenges the speaker faces when seeking self-care and autonomy in a country requiring constant navigation of power imbalances.
“M asked if I’ve ever made a choice to live and why
I lied the way you lie to the suicidal
A few times, I said—not Most days”
In “Beauty,” the speaker struggles with depression, and the introduction of emptiness as not just a feeling or response to depression but as a physical manifestation of the language and culture surrounding and causing this depression first appears. Staring into space, at a wall, into “nothingness” becomes both the speaker’s comfort and their prison cell; this rejection of the many ways in which the speaker and people with experiences like the speaker are (inaccurately) seen, purposely overlooked, and turn to avoidance to cope forms one of the overarching themes in Sharif’s book. The speaker references their grandmother as one who was similarly overlooked and therefore purposely did not look: “not really / looking at anything and certainly not me.” To draw this parallel between the speaker and their grandmother shows the intergenerational trauma that language and culture can inflict.
The speaker in Customs also craves and subconsciously rejects the craving of, similar to the emptiness, a kind of loneliness that is reserved for the privileged and wealthy: “loneliness / delimited by colonnade and cold-pressed juices.” In this poem, “Persistence of Vision: Gwendolyn Brooks,” the speaker reflects on and critiques the “architected privacy” of the upper classes; they seem both envious of and freed from the heavy emptiness of such an existence.
“. . . In their homes, they can’t
hear each other call from foyer to pool house. I am
jealous of this loneliness most of all—”
The speaker’s “jealousy” is tempered by their knowledge that loneliness, like emptiness, is, at its core, a mechanism of the mind used to ease the pain of existence, no matter if that existence is rich or poor, American or non-American.
One of the main concerns of Customs is the artifice of American social and linguistic expectations. As the collection progresses, Sharif’s poems become more intensely fueled by the frustration the speaker feels at these meaningless performances. In “The Master’s House,” a clear not to Lorde’s famous quote, the speaker lists other physical performances and requirements that America imposes upon them as an analogy to these cultural and social performances:
“To develop the ability to leave an entire nation thusly, just by
staring at a spot on the wall, as the lead-vested agent names
article by article what to remove”
Again, we see these allusions to the emptiness, the loneliness, the staring into nothingness; Sharif masterfully blends, develops, and transforms her imagery throughout Customs in such a seamless and unexpected way that the reader effortlessly follows these gorgeous, golden, and intelligent threads all the way to the brink of epiphany and beyond. The forced removal of clothing, in a literal sense, is evidence of the brutality of assimilating into American culture. This act (performance) is a figurative peeling-back of one’s home, one’s cultural and racial identity, and one’s individualism and autonomy. The speaker once again seeks to escape these impositions, but recognizes them as, unfortunately, necessary for this American existence.
Customs is Solmaz Sharif’s unburdening—the reader feels freer, smarter, and more empathetic by the end. It is a collection of poems that is certain to be treasured and studied for generations.