[Graywolf Press; 2022]
In medieval philosophy, the five senses existed in a hierarchy of purity. Solmaz Sharif’s first book, Look, derived its title from the purest sense, sight, which is uncontaminated by physical contact with its object. Her second book, Customs, focuses on the sense at the bottom of the hierarchy, the gross sense of taste. Sharif uses the logic of taste and its attendant action of eating—the engulfment of the other, the becoming something else after its digestion—as a diving board for her exploration of the immigrant’s predicament. To desire a lost homeland is to hunger, a hunger that, as Sharif shows, transcends the body in which it begins.
Customs opens with the speaker’s antipathy towards the foods around her. Those that Sharif names are emblematic of bourgeois, capitalist life in the United States. In “Beauty,” the author writes:
Frugal musicality is how Kristeva describes depression’s speech
. . .
A bag of shriveled limes
Arugula frozen then thawed then frozen again, still sealed
The speaker’s attitude towards these foods, which veers towards without quite reaching disgust, contrasts with the uncomplicated appetite displayed by her Iranian grandmother:
Her fallen stockings, the way she spit, thwack of the meat cleaver, the little bones she sucked clean and piled on her plate, not really looking at anything and certainly not me
Here, as elsewhere, Sharif uses formal means to illustrate her speaker’s exigence. The arugula and limes are recounted in short, largely clause-restricted single lines, whereas the description of her grandmother eating spills vigorously across multiple lines.
Antipathy towards actual foods—arugula, lime—is simply a bodily manifestation of an existential revulsion. For Sharif’s speaker, the zest of the grandmother’s appetite in “Beauty” symbolizes a spiritual purity that lies out of reach. Likewise in “Dear Aleph,” the speaker chastises herself for possessing empathy (“laying yourself down / in someone else’s chalklines / and snapping a photo”) rather than the purer, nobler emotion of love. Ethel Rosenberg is summoned as an exemplar of love:
. . .
Oh, Mrs. Evans,
you’re such a wonderful woman,
said, supposedly, Ethel Rosenberg
to the woman who walked her
to the chair.
It was empathy on Evans’s part.
Love on Ethel’s.
I am a wonderful woman
more often than I care to admit.
The speaker is ashamed to “admit” that she, like Evans, is merely “a wonderful woman.” She and Evans occupy the same side of the glass, as it were, while watching Ethel Rosenberg’s execution at the hands of state-sanctioned violence. Whereas the speaker’s envy is only implied in “Dear Aleph,” it is explicitly recounted in “The Master’s House” through another death-adjacent scenario:
To recall the Texan that held a shotgun to your father’s chest, sending him falling backward, pleading, and the words came to him in Farsi
To be jealous of this, his most desperate language
In this poem, addressed to the speaker herself, her jealousy does not center on the father’s command of Farsi, but the fact that, at his most “desperate” moment, his true language is not English. In both cases, a martyr(-like) experience at the hands of a false home country, represented by the electric chair in Rosenberg’s case and the gun-wielding Texan in the father’s, has created a clean separation from America. The soul’s desired food, it turns out, is otherness from the United States.
Whereas Ethel and the speaker’s father transcend their American pseudo-homeland, the speaker realizes that this break is denied her. It is revealed, in “An Otherwise,” the final poem of Customs, that Sharif’s speaker had fantasized for years about returning to and discovering a true homeland in Iran, her country of origin:
Maybe I shouldn’t have taken you there,
[my mother] said of our trip
to her childhood home.
For years I wrote of the bumps
left by the tanks
churning over her roads
as braille messages from the martyrs. . .
. . .
When I went
I found nothing.
It died there: desire.
This traumatic discovery (“I found nothing”) may chronologically predate the poems earlier in the book. As such, the speaker’s food-revulsion and envy can be explained by her alienation from the United States and subsequent discovery that an “otherwise” homeland is, for her, an impossibility. Like the denouement of a detective story, “An Otherwise” reveals the founding trauma that underlies the “depression’s speech” (“Beauty”) and the knee-jerk “jealous” reaction to the father’s near-death experience (“The Master’s House”).
But the last parts of “An Otherwise” seem to return to the present, meditating on a possible path forward by which the speaker might balance her desire for and alienation from her lost homeland:
I set out, as [my mother] set out,
armed, later than I would
like, to follow
the music mine
and not, but matrilineal,
and in the amniotic sac
reaching where the listening . . .
Here, the speaker enlists the sense of hearing, which falls, on the medieval hierarchy of senses, between the ethereality of sight and the grossness of taste. The geography of being “in the amniotic sac” enacts a kind of “eating,” whereby one body is situated in another, but without the mastication and destruction of consumption. Rather than possessing another’s experience, characteristic of envy, this amniotic relationship suggests simultaneity, the way a fetus and mother can harmoniously share coordinates in time and space. It is still an uncertain solution, however, and the last line of the book ends in an unpunctuated fragment: “I pass through there so that”
Because the object of desire—a fantasized version of the lost homeland—is repeatedly negated through the book, Customs invites the question of how this desire relates to the speaker’s lived circumstances. Does the speaker’s desire result from or precede the condition of being an immigrant in a hostile society? In other words, is the speaker’s homesickness a product of displacement, or was a fantasy of a homeland generated by the speaker’s inveterate desire? The troubled ontological status of desire’s object recalls Wallace Stevens’s “Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion:”
[He who has] lost the whole in which he was contained,
Knows desire without an object of desire,
All mind and violence and nothing felt.
Like Stevens’s speaker, Sharif understands the ravenous hunger that attends desire “without an object of desire.” What results from this existential state is “mind and violence:” an ascetic revulsion of self, the jealousy and envy of others.
One of the chief accomplishments of Sharif’s book is its depiction of the relationship between the “actual” longing for lost homeland and the “metaphysical” hunger that becomes a state of being. Customs is most commanding when it exposes the rapaciousness of this longing, which engenders jealousy in the speaker for the experiences of historical figures (Ethel Rosenberg) and even loved ones (her mother in Iran, her father in Texas). The book is at its most farsighted when it draws the connection between the immigrant’s alienation and the broader, existential malady of desire.
Angelo Mao is a biomedical scientist and writer. His first book of poems is Abattoir (Burnside Review Press, 2021). His poetry and reviews have appeared in Poetry, Georgia Review, Lana Turner, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. He is also the managing editor of DIALOGIST.
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