NEA Literature Fellowships

Solmaz Sharif

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(2013 - Poetry)


...Let this be the Body
through which the War has passed.
--Frank Bidart

somewhere I did not learn mow down or mop up • somewhere I
wouldn't hear your father must come with me or I must fingerprint
your grandmother can you translate please • the FBI has my cousins'
computers • my father says say whatever you want over the phone
my father says don't let them scare you that's what they want • my
mother has a hard time believing anything's bugged • my father
and I always talk like the world listens • my father is still on the
bus with contraband papers under his seat as uniforms storm
down the aisle • it was my job to put a cross on each home with
dead for clearing • it was my job to dig graves into the soccer
field • I wrote red tracksuit • I wrote Shahida, headless, found beside
Saad Mosqueburied in the same grave as the above • I wrote
unidentified fingersfound inside Oldsmobile car • I wrote their
epitaphs in chalk • from my son's wedding mattress I know this
mound's his room • I dropped a knee and engaged the enemy •
I emptied my clip then finished the job • I took two steps in and
threw a grenade • I took no more than two steps into a room
before firing • in Haditha we cleared homes Falluja style • my
father was reading the Koran when they shot him through the
chest • they fired into the closet • the kitchen • the 90 year old
standing over the stove • just where was I • uno a uno tu cara en
todos los buses urbanosHere lie the mortal remains of one who in life
searched your face • call me when you get home • lets miss an
appointment together • lets miss another flight to repeated strip
searches • that Haditha bed • magenta queen sheets and wood-
shelved headboard and blood splattered up the walls to the
ceiling • they held each other • they slept on opposing ends
wishing one would leave • mother doesn't know who I am
anymore • I write Mustapha Mohammad Khalaf, 15 months old • I
write Here lies an unknown martyr, a big security guard with a blue
shirt, found near an industrial area with a chain of keysMartyr
unknown, only bones
• they ask if I have anything to declare then
limit my response to fruits and nuts • an American interrupts an
A and B conversation to tell me you don't have to do anything you
don't want to do
• he strikes me as a misstep away from she was
asking for it
• what did you expect after fishing Popov from a
trash bin • what did you expect after accepting a marbled palace
• they drag the man who killed my uncle out a hole • they
inspect him for ticks on national television • no one in my
family celebrates • when FBI knocks I tell them I don't have to do
anything I don't want to do
they get a kick out of that • she just
laid there and took it like a champ • she was dying for it • at a
protest a man sells a shirt that says My dick would pull out of Iraq
my mother tape records my laugh to mail bubblewrapped back
home • my mother records me singing Yeh shabe mahtab mah
meeyad to khab
• I am singing the moon will come one night and
take me away sidestreet by sidestreet • sitting on a pilled
suburban carpet or picking blue felt off the hand-me-down
couch • the displaced whatnots • I practice the work of worms •
how much I can wear away with no one watching • two
generations ago my blood moved through borders according to
grazing and seasons • then a lifeline of planes • planes fly so
close to my head filled with bomblets and disappeared men •
scaffolding sprouts nooses sagging with my dead • I burn my
finger on the broiler and smell trenches • my uncle pissing
himself • shopping bags are legs there is half a head in the
gutter • I say Hello NSA when I place a call • somewhere a
file details my sexual habits • some tribunal may read it all back
to me • Golsorkhi, I know the cell they will put me in • they put
me onto a crooked pile of others to rot • is this what happens to
a brain born into war • a city of broken teeth • the thuds of
falling • we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter
• I am singing to her still

(previously appeared in Witness)

Born in Istanbul to Iranian parents, Solmaz Sharif holds degrees from UC Berkeley, where she studied and taught with June Jordan's Poetry for the People, and New York University. Recent work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, jubilat, and others. Her work has been honored with a "Discovery"/Boston Review poetry prize, as well as a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University where she is working on a poetic rewrite of the U.S. Department of Defense's dictionary.

Photo by Arash Saedinia

Author's Statement

It's funny to set out to write what has not been written, write what you wish to read, and to not look down to see if you are missing some obvious reason why it has not been written. I mean, is it a terrible idea? Is it useless? When I set out to "rewrite" the US Department of Defense's dictionary in 2008, I didn't understand how it hadn't been done yet. Tentatively, I shared the idea with poets and friends I admired. Sometimes it was met with a snort or a raised eyebrow, sometimes communicating pleasure, sometimes consternation. The word "political" was still an insult in some workshops. As in, "this work is political, but" followed by a redeeming attribute. I did not expect to win any awards with it; quite the opposite. I did hope, however, to find, somehow, the time and support to write as much as possible. For the last several years, I have been traveling wherever I could best house my writing, buying house goods according to one criteria: am I willing to move it? When I got the call on election day, I was staying with my uncle in San Jose. Now, under my own roof, I have bought my first desk in seven years. The grant is, to use a Department of Defense term, ANCHORAGE. In the concrete sense: having a couch to read on, a desk to write on, and time to work in such a home. And in the more abstract sense: knowing my life's work is not useless. That it is worth public investment is the greatest assurance of all.