Solmaz Sharif

Finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry
One of The New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of 2016

“[An] excellent debut collection. . . . An artful lexicographer, Sharif shows us that the diameter of a word is often as devastating as the diameter of a bomb.”The New York Times Book Review

About the Book

A powerful, innovative exploration of the language of war by a new poet of passion and conscience

Daily I sit
with the language
they’ve made
of our language
like you.
You are what is referred to as
-from “Personal Effects”
Solmaz Sharif’s astonishing first book, Look, asks us to see the ongoing costs of war as the unbearable losses of human lives and also the insidious abuses against our everyday speech. In this virtuosic array of poems, lists, shards, and sequences, Sharif assembles her family’s and her own fragmented narratives in the aftermath of warfare. Those repercussions echo into the present day, in the grief for those killed, in America’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the discriminations endured at the checkpoints of daily encounter.

At the same time, these poems point to the ways violence is conducted against our language. Throughout this collection are words and phrases lifted from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms; in their seamless inclusion, Sharif exposes the devastating euphemisms deployed to sterilize the language, control its effects, and sway our collective resolve. But Sharif refuses to accept this terminology as given, and instead turns it back on its perpetrators. “Let it matter what we call a thing,” she writes. “Let me look at you.”

Additional Reviews

“Remarkable. . . . By turns fierce and tender, the poems are a searing response to American intervention.”The New Yorker

“Remarkable. . . . Every piece underscores the importance of how we view and name things.”The Washington Post

“[Sharif] forces you to suspend yourself and consider your relationship to language really deeply.”—NPR, All Things Considered

“A powerful collection of verse. . . . She turns a system of language back onto itself. . . . remarkably profound.”BOMB Magazine

Look creates an after-image similar to that of Robin Coste Lewis’ National Book Award-winning 2015 debut, Voyage of the Sable Venus, with its meditation on the long aftermath of slavery and diaspora. Like that book, Look feels like a disassembled museum exhibit with the occluded stories — the ones not told — written into view. Look, it compels you to do, and you will.”Los Angeles Times

“Sharif’s skillful debut collection draws on a Defense Department lexicon of military terms.”The New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

“An urgent collection. . . . [Sharif's poems] work at the more radical aim of challenging the reader's complacency. . . . [They] demand witness.”Bookforum

“It is the central miracle of Look that Sharif shows us the real intensity of her conceit without veering into triteness. She is . . . consistently fierce and beautiful.”—NPR.org

“A powerful, and inventively polemical, meditation on language and violence.”—Slate, “Mark O’Connell’s 10 Favorite Books of 2016”

“A restless, gorgeous book of poetry.”—Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker Page-Turner

“This debut from Solmaz Sharif, a poet of Iranian descent, offers another kind of take on the most pressing issues of our moment: war in the Middle East, the war on terror, the devastation ravaged upon families in the name of freedom. Sharif has a vast poet's toolkit.”—Craig Morgan Teicher, NPR.org

“Astonishing. . . . [Sharif is] a formidable poetic talent. . . . Sharif casts the light of her imagination into the world's darkest places.”San Francisco Chronicle 

“Solmaz Sharif’s debut collection, Look, isn’t only one of my favorite poetry collections of 2016, it’s one of my favorite poetry collections of all-time. . . . Sharif’s collection is jarring, haunting, and especially powerful right now.”Bustle, The 12 Best Poetry Collections of 2016

Look explores the myriad ways how we go to war today reverberates through communities and states and across the world — taking a critical stance against the way humans wage war against other countries, wage war with ourselves, and even wage war against our own language and means of expressing (or not) the inherent truths about our lives. . . . Intimate and haunting.”Bustle

Look is a book that disrupts, fervently and effectively. The poems within are allergic to complacency and linguistic hypnosis; they constantly reach, inquire, prod, and wonder—sometimes with force—and refuse to allow the reader to be lulled into the sense that everything is okay in the world.”—The Rumpus

“Sharif defies power, silence, and categorization in this stunning suite. . . . In form, content, and execution, Sharif's debut is arguably the most noteworthy book of poetry yet about recent U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the greater Middle East.”Publishers Weekly, starred review

Look is surprisingly tender for a book of such ferocious poetry. . . . A deeply human attempt to rewrite the vocabulary of war.”—Vox.com

“Sharif’s poems are rich with imagery; a single line of hers can tell an entire story.”Huffington Post

“There are few books, whether debuts or not, to more anticipated than the publication of Solmaz Sharif’s Look.”Literary Hub

“No debut poet of 2016 has me more intrigued than Solmaz Sharif.”—Jonathan Sturgeon, Flavorwire

“[Sharif] closes the distance between the trigger and the wounded, between language and the body. She makes it impossible to look away.”The Margins

“An important corrective against the weaponised rhetoric we now confront daily in the media and in our personal lives.”The Poetry School

“Raw, unsparing poems. . . . Highly recommended.”Library Journal *Starred Review*

“Though this is her first book, Look displays none of the hesitations of a debut writer. Sharif is in command of her abilities, the book at once complete and unified, but varied in subject, tone, and form. It’s a distinguished introduction.”Literary Hub

Look is more than an astonishing collection, it’s an essential one.”Malibu Magazine

“A brilliant dive into how war affects people and language. . . . In the vein of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Look is, at its core, a political call to attention: If we are to combat the effects of war on people and language, we must first understand how war permeates our society and culture. To this end, Look is not only relevant, but eye opening.”The Los Angeles Review

“[Solmaz] Sharif is poised to influence not only literature but larger conversations about America, war, and the Middle East.”The Paris Review

“Words can be powerful and Sharif uses them to their full potential. . . . This is a brilliant book of poetry.”Muslim Women

“Creating poetry that is beautiful is hard, and so is creating poetry that is socially important. Poets who manage to do both simultaneously are treasures. In Look, Sharif provocatively turns the veiled, euphemistic language of the American war machine against itself by crafting poetry from words and lines in the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. The result is profound, at points humorous, and sobering.”Fourth & Sycamore, Best Books of 2016

Look demonstrates not only that language is an integral part of the military arsenal but also that poetry remains a subversive act, a refusal to submit to despair or amnesia.”The Critical Flame

“To say that these poems are those of protest, witness, or resistance would be to simplify them, to mask their brutal, gorgeous originality—to make them about a uniform we rather than a plurality of Is.”Diode

“Sharif’s use of language in the collection accomplishes what is, in my view, the essential task of poetry, and that is to engender empathy and speak truth to power. And to that end, Look succeeds in spades.”—Matt Keliher, Subtext Books

Look opens the way for a new internationalist regard in American poetry. . . . Solmaz Sharif has produced an extraordinary and vital work of poetry.”Puritan Magazine

“Sharif’s writing is sparkling, precise, subtle, artful, and true. . . . Through the fine achievement of Look, Solmaz Sharif gives us the gift of her unflinching gaze.”—David Baker, Kenyon Review Online

“There is so much here that compels. . . . Sharif's collection activates the role of observer by stunning back into awareness the wounds that still suppurate, lighting the holes cut from language and their respective tears in American thinking.”—The Lit Pub

“Sharif has been deeply and irreparably impacted by war and injustice, and she is deft at modulating her voice in this collection, scaling between broad, abstract critique and deeply intimate reflection.”Fourth & Sycamore

“Sharif’s Look is ambitious, intelligent, moving, important, and a little dangerous.”—Drunken Odyssey

“Sharif’s work transcends the standard tropes of political poetry. Neither didactic nor angry, her poems delicately balance sadness and loss, anxiety and fear and hope and humor. . . . Illuminating and heartbreaking, Look demands that the reader pay attention to their own relationship with the adopted, euphemistic language of power, politics and destruction.”Spectrum Culture

“A complicated, commanding account of contemporary American life. . . . The poems in Look shift between clear-eyed description and exhausting wariness, painful in their honest assessment of the destruction caused by our present conflicts and ways of being. . . . Look has been published just when it is most needed. . . . The work [these poems] do is utterly necessary. . . . To see another person's humanness: Look calls us back to this most simple, this most essential task.”Harvard Review

“Urgent, prophetic, and virtuosic. . . . [Sharif] rages against the dull machine of war by turning its weapons against it—into poems with which she hopes to provoke a sleeping community out of its ‘learned helplessness.’”The The Poetry

Look achieves Wallace Stevens’ critical standard of poetry by deftly responding to the true spirit of the time in which it is written. . . . [Look] is no ordinary book. . . . Crossing into such volatile aesthetic terrain charged with a radical decadence, this collection threatens even the relevance of such superlatives with obliteration. Quite possibly, it deserves to be called dangerous.”Colorado Review

“Sharif has created an essential book of poetry for this time and this place.”—Lisa Higgs, Kenyon Review Online

“I haven’t been as excited about a first book of poetry for a long time as I am about Solmaz Sharif’s forthcoming Look. . . . This feels like an important book, not just a good one.”—David Baker, The Poetry Foundation

“As heart-wrenching as they are intriguing, these highly anticipated poems are beautifully devastating.”BookTrib

“Solmaz Sharif’s Look confronts an empirical system of language and its effect on family and citizen, near and far-reaching, social and philosophical. By unearthing, decoding, and reconstructing half-hidden symbols of power built into nomenclature as well as everyday expression, the poet serves truth—sometimes delicately, other times brutally: ‘The ground meat left out / for strays, the sewing needles planted in it.’ In fact, each phrase pulls the reader into a system of being, personal and historical, and Look, line by line, extends toward prophecy and (‘I am singing to her still’) harmony.”—Yusef Komunyakaa

“Solmaz Sharif’s beautiful and important poems patrol the boundaries and limits of language. They show how words can demean experience and also lift it up. These are political poems that never lose sight of the personal, simply because they insist that the truth of one is inseparable from the reality of the other. I can’t remember a more distinguished debut.”—Eavan Boland

“I think analysis means to separate elements in order to reframe, even penetrate, apparent meaning. So here (Look), a poet’s book takes on a military book in order to understand or reflect war—which is impossible because war is the shattering of home and love in a state of absurdity, thinly veiled by a new vocabulary to hide monstrosity. Solmaz Sharif’s Look is something great. She throws us a brilliant, even perfect, book of poems sadly central to the nightmare of today.”—Eileen Myles

“Solmaz Sharif's arresting, harrowing collection, Look, stands front and center among so many stunning poetry debuts published this year. This incendiary book is beautiful and bracing. Through Sharif’s powerful reworking of language, you not only read and hear these words—you come to really see them, and through them, you see the devastation and displacement of war. Look positions life as it is RIGHT NOW, in so many places, for so many people, under assault, bombardment, siege, in exile. Language itself is part of the battlefield, a battlefield Solmaz Sharif takes on with a glint in her words and a fierce, resilient heart.”—Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

“An elegy for an era of endless war, Look explores the shifting lines between jargon and rhetoric, home and battlefront, and safety and national security. This impressive debut is equally scathing and tender.”—Stephanie Valdez, Community Books, Brooklyn, NY

“The poems in LOOK challenge the reader to question language and assumptions about meaning. They investigate the way power uses words and words bestow power. But they do more than work the mind. Expect to feel your heart lift and your gut sink.”—Melanie McNair, Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC

“The language of Solmaz Sharif's Look is a double-edged sword—one that the poet wields by its blade. An Iranian-American constrained by the War on Terror, Sharif adopts the Orwellian cant of the U.S. Defense Department for her own ends. Take the term “COLLATERAL DAMAGE,” which so neatly obscures the body bag, the bereft family, the ravaged household; in a parody of detachment, Look puts that sterile phrase on a new widow's tongue, crying out to her husband by the last name the world gave him. Repurposed in defiance of original intent, the military lexicon retains its menace (what casual depravity might “SANITIZE” conceal?), suspending the poems in precarious balance between elusive memory and the numbness of documentation. This book arrests the reader—it is nothing short of vital. —Lydia McOscar, Brookline Booksmith, Boston, MA

“I find it hard to talk about the atrocities of war without feeling like the words, however bare-boned, are too grandiose, too vibrant, as if the beauty of language is somehow excusing or elevating or making okay the decidedly, horrifically not-okay things it describes. This difficulty is a puzzle I'm still solving, but Solmaz Sharif's Look has arrived in my life like an all-important clue, a turning point. I can't think of a contemporary poetry collection that uses fragmentation to such tremendous effect, nor pays such serious, genuine attention to the words of which it's made. These things--fragmentation, attention to language--are too often simply watchwords in our business, but in Look they feel utterly vital, the only possible way out of this mess.—Mairead Staid, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

"Solmaz Sharif's Look tells the story of the punishing legacy enduring warfare can have on a family. She expertly utilizes language lifted from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to demonstrate how we have sanitized the language of warfare into something more benign and less deadly. By doing so, we have allowed those who perpetrate warfare into convincing us that the true cost of such wars is not the loss of human life, but the loss of capitalist opportunity. Sharif's use of language in the collection accomplishes what is, in my view, the essential task of poetry, and that is to engender empathy and speak truth to power. And to that end, Look succeeds in spades."—Matt Keliher, Subtext Bookstore, St. Paul, MN

“Solmaz Sharif's Look upends the vernacular of war, so that ‘shelter’ is given, fruit is ‘bruised,’ and poppy stems, not people, break. Language is reclaimed (or withheld) from a state of emergency, dared to mean instead of warn. Like Inger Christensen's Alphabet, Look tasks itself with naming, or redressing, in effort to ‘cast a loving light’ on defendants, families, histories. ‘So you feel like a threat?’ asks the poet's psychiatrist. The answer, not surprisingly, but ‘powerfully,’ is Yes.” 
—Colin McDonald, 57th St. Books, Chicago, IL

“‘Until now, now that I've reached my thirties; / All my Muse's poetry has been harmless.’ This line, from the poem ‘Desired Appreciation,’ speaks to the shock that aging into ‘a brain born into war’ can bring; it's this shock, this coming-through-the-numbness, that drives Solmaz Sharif's masterful Look. These poems do not offer narratives of aging beyond trauma. Instead, they are prayers of the most desperate and urgent order. A mother puts a gun in her baby's crib. Laughter is tape-recorded and bubble-wrapped. Doctors shock dogs to teach themselves about ‘learned helplessness.’ ‘And when she asks / does this mean he will die? I say yes / without worrying it will break her.’” —Will Walton, Avid Bookshop, Athens, GA

“Sharif's poems are often redacted, some by blank space or suggestion, and many by these ‘military and associated terms’ themselves, harming their speakers’ ability to completely and unobtrusively refer to the world or one’s memories of it without their influence, and by extension for a life free from the ramifications of these terms and their partitions to even exist.  They impose upon a reader's emotional connotations as well, disrupt and frustrate them.  It is understatement to say that the comfortable reader is here critically made uncomfortable, and in this way Sharif's usage of this specialized, dehumanized military lexicon helps comprise a masterful, humanist poetics of subversion and resistance.  LOOK has found and opened up a critical juncture in our language—‘Let it matter what we call a thing’—and insists that we should not, and cannot, look away.”—John Ganiard, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

“[An] impressive debut collection. . . . Sharif begins to replace what has been displaced, or to reclaim displacement from official state power. And it produces a vibrant, dissonant poetry that refuses to calcify.”Boston Review