Solmaz Sharif: Customs

CUSTOMS: POEMS, Solmaz Sharif. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 94 pages, $16 paper,

This morning I read Customs, the brand new book of poems by Solmaz Sharif, and I read the interview in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers, and the review in my copy of the March 21, 2022,  The New Yorker.

If you are interested in poetry today, this is a poet to watch. Reading the opening paragraph of the NYer article, I thought of William Carlos Williams: “It is hard to get the news from poems / but men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there.”

The title of Solmaz Sharif’s second book of poems….evokes the extended “if” of someone enmeshed in the sadistic bureaucracy of American immigration, a person at the mercy of an “officer deciding by blood sugar, last blow job received, and relative level of disdain for vermin” who belongs and who does not. Anyone whose presence is conditional knows that a time will come when the conditions will not be met. To be let in, as Sharif—who was born in Turkey to Iranian parents and is a naturalized citizen of the United States—writes, is inevitably to be “let in until.” In these poems, the ostensible clarity of borders and checkpoints gives way to a terrain of fundamental uncertainty, a geography of elusive thresholds, delayed arrivals, and impossible returns.

–Elisa Gonzalez, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022

 To emend Gonzalez’s paragraph, the poem “He, Too,” quoted here doesn’t end with a period but leaves us in empty space:

I am let in until

We’re left dangling, as Sharif, making her way through a customs officer—who wants to know (among other intrusive questions) what she teaches, only to reply, “I hate poetry“—leaving her in doubt as to her own belongingness, or her ability to belong anywhere. In the middle section of the book, too, an extended riff on the preposition of plays similarly with white space and closure, this time adding end brackets (never open brackets, as the NYer article points out).

Of is the thing without which
I would not be.


Of which I am without
or away from.
I am without the kingdom


and thus of it.


I’m not replicating this excerpt exactly; there’s more white space. The poem occupies 20 pages, some of them almost entirely blank. It ends with a black page. It’s a book you have to hold in your hands and physically experience.

In the Poets & Writers interview, Douglas Kearney quotes another poet, his friend Yona Harvey, as saying “I’m not writing for awards. I’m trying to get my soul ready.” Sharif responds by talking about wholeness: “I suppose the only thing that is possible is wholeness, that any kind of hacking—that’s the illusion. But as a writer I care for the hacked things, in their illusory hackedness, and what it might mean to name, very smally, the seemingly aborted or disdained or broken things that feel incomplete or irrelevant” (p. 43).

She continues:

I appreciate, too, the word integrity. I’m realizing that that’s the central word of my practice. How do I live with integrity? I’ve wondered that, politically and ethically, for a very long time, and now a part of it is “How do I live with a spiritual integrity?” Also I love that: “Get my soul ready.” How to know how to get out of the way of things I don’t yet know how to articulate or how it lines up politically with everything I’ve done so far—but if I know it to be true and I know its intention is not to harm, then it is my job to live with integrity toward it and in naming it.  (p. 43)

And here’s a poem that, at first glance, seems deceptively simple, or named “smally,” as Sharif might describe it, the first poem in the book:

Dear Aleph,

Like Ovid: I’ll have no last words.
This is what it means to die
among barbarians. Bar bar bar
was how the Greeks heard
our speech—sheep, beasts—and so we became
barbarians. We make them reveal
the brutes they are by the things
we make them name. David,
they tell me, is the one
one should aspire to, but ever since
I first heard them say Philistine
I’ve known I am Goliath
if I am anything.

—Solmaz Sharif

Before I leave this, I want to add that Sharif would argue with my use of the Williams quote above (“It’s hard to get the news…”). To quote from the NYer article:

Rejecting the injunction to bear witness, [Sharif] displays a thrilling contempt for literature’s vaunted ability to elicit empathy, which means only “laying yourself down / in someone else’s chalklines/and snapping a photo.” For Sharif, the chalk lines around a body, like the borderlines around a body politic, are another boundary not to be trusted; the contours of personal experience can’t describe, literally or literarily, the truth of a trauma.

—Elisa Gonzalez

To my mind, this is news we need to hear.

You can read more about Sharif, and more poems, too, at Poetry Foundation, and and … well, everywhere.

Ellen Bryant Voigt: Kyrie

KYRIE: POEMS, Ellen Bryant Voigt. W. W. Norton, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110, 1995, 80 pages, $15.95 paper,

This one really took me down the rabbit hole. By complete coincidence, it is another book of untitled sonnets, though it couldn’t differ more from Seuss’s Frank. Well, maybe there’s a correlation in that both collections tell a dark story. Voigt is telling, however, not a personal story, but one set during the flu pandemic of 1918-1919.

If you’ve heard a choir present “Kyrie Elieson,” you know that the Greek words, translated to English, mean “Lord have mercy.” In Voigt’s merciless progression of poems we hear the voices of rural characters affected by WWI and influenza. A doctor speaks of his patients. A soldier writes home. A sister buries a sister. A mother loses a child. Whole families are wiped out. This book has been compared to Spoon River Anthology, but Voigt’s theme is the singular, unifying catastrophe of an epidemic.

And this is why Kyrie, first published in 1995, has been reclaimed by a new generation of readers. “After they closed the schools the churches closed, / stacks like pulpwood filling the morgue” begins one sonnet. Kyrie took me only an hour or so to read; perhaps you can imagine why it’s taken me most of the day to find the energy to blog about it.

Thought at first that grief had brought him down.
His wife dead, his own hand dug the grave
under a willow oak, in family ground—
he got home sick, was dead when morning came.

By week’s end, his cousin who worked in town
was seized at once by fever and by chill,
left his office, walked back home at noon,
death ripening in him like a boil.

Soon it was a farmer in the field—
someone’s brother, someone’s father—
left the mule in its traces and went home.
Then the mason, the miller at his wheel,
from deep in the forest, the hunter, the logger,

and the sun still up everywhere in the kingdom.

—Ellen Bryant Voigt

In a Los Angeles Times review toward the end of 2020, poet Sarah Carey recounts her own discovery of and journey with these poems:

… as the United States alone approaches 400,000 projected coronavirus deaths at the end of 2020, I found myself reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, her 1995 collection of sonnets that summon life during the 1918 flu pandemic. I was seeking, perhaps, a window into how others experienced an event of such life-changing proportions, and what might be learned from their stories.

Toward the end of the same review. Carey writes: “To enter the lives of the people who experienced the 1918 pandemic through the personas Voigt creates in Kyrie is to glimpse the power of collective loss and all its reverberating impacts.” Amen.

I’ll leave you with one more sonnet. Voigt is often remarked on for her musicality, but also on the simplicity and starkness of her poems, present here in both style and subject:

Who said the worst was past, who knew
such a thing? Someone writing history,
someone looking down on us
from the clouds. Down here, snow and wind:
cold blew through the clapboards,
our spring was frozen in the frozen ground.
Like the beasts in their holes,
no one stirred—if not sick
exhausted or afraid. In the village,
the doctor’s own wife died in the night
of the nineteenth, 1919.
But it was true: at the window,
every afternoon, toward the horizon,
a little more light before the darkness fell.

—Ellen Bryant Voigt

The prose afterword to this book (a scant 2 pages) is also worth reading. In the final paragraph, drawing from Alfred Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Voigt writes: “In one year, one quarter of the total U. S. population contracted influenza; one out of five never recovered. Nevertheless, the national memory bears little trace.” These poems insist: remember.

Searching for the exact version of “Kyrie Eliesen” my daughters sang in high school choir (I couldn’t find it, but there are many), I discovered that the composer Stanley Grill has set selections from Voigt’s Kyrie to music. No Youtube samples (alas), but you can attempt your own Google search for the score.

To learn more about Ellen Bryant Voigt, visit The Poetry Foundation, or see the video at this site.

Diane Seuss: Frank

FRANK: SONNETS, Diane Seuss. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 2021, 137 pages, $16.00 paper,

Sometimes I drag my husband to art-house-y films and when someone asks, “Was it good? Should I go see it?” I hesitate. Yes, definitely good. Also, scarred me for life.

That’s how I feel about this amazing, abrasive, challenging, brilliant book of poems by Diane Seuss. It is like nothing I’ve ever read. Your mileage may vary.

From the back cover: “Every poem in frank: sonnets is an example of the incomparable Seussian Sonnet, where elegy and narrative test the boundaries of the conventional form” (Terrance Hayes). “…an ambitious, searing, and capacious life story. The poems themselves use an ecstatic syntax to unite Seuss’s lyric leaps from one wretched sweetness to another….narratives of poverty, death, parenthood, addiction, AIDS, and the ‘dangerous business’ of literature are irreducible” (Traci Brimhall). In short, it was a little like reading a memoir—bizarre, fragmented, mesmerizing. When I first purchased this book and read a poem here and there, I was missing the point.

I’m trying to pluck out a few sentences to illustrate (but some of these untitled poems, always 14-lines but with unbridled-lengthened-lines, are all one sentence). Maybe this one about her son: “I’d authored him in my bones, he was my allegory, analogy, corollary, mirror, I forged / his suffering, his nail, his needle, his thrill” (p. 66). And, often, provocative statements that I don’t quite know what to do with: “All lives have their tropes over which we have minimal control” (p. 83); “I fell in love with death” (p. 80). Or in a poem beginning, “Thirty-nine years ago is nothing, nothing,” this ending:

I was nothing, I knew nothing then of nothing, its shacks shawled

with moss, its bitter curatives and ancient hags redressing my narratives. (p. 60)

Traci Brimhall sums it up brilliantly: “It’s a book to inhabit, to think alongside, to rage and laugh with, to behold the ways beauty is both a weapon and a relief.”

Here’s one sonnet, and I’d say “to let you judge for yourself,” except you can’t really judge this book on one poem. “Mikel” is a recurring character, and the subject of the cover photo.

I have slept in many places, for years on mattresses that entered

my life via nothing but luck, as a child on wet sheets, I could not

contain myself, as a teen on a bed where my father ate his last

pomegranate, among crickets and chicken bones in ditches, in the bare

grass on the lavish grounds of a crumbling castle, in a flapping German

circus tent, in a lean-to, my head on the belly of a sick calf, in a terrible

darkness where a shrew tried to stay afloat in a bucket of well water,

in a blue belfry, on a pink couch being eaten from the inside by field mice,

on bare floorboards by TV light with Mikel on Locust Place, on an amber

throne of cockroach casings, on a carpet of needles from a cemetery pine,

in a clubhouse circled by crabapple trees with high school boys who are

now members of a megachurch, in a hotel bathtub in St. Augustine after

a sip from the Fountain of Youth, cold on a cliff’s edge, passed out cold

on train tracks, in a hospital bed holding my lamb like an army of lilacs.

—Diane Seuss (p. 48)

You can read more about Diane Seuss at Poetry Foundation. This National Book Critics Circle review (which calls it “a memoir in sonnets”) will also be helpful.

On May 15, Seuss is reading her work alongside poet Dorianne Laux — notice that it’s Eastern Standard Time.

Jericho Brown’s “Duplex”

This morning I began reading a poetry book of 140 pages or so, and, about halfway through, decided to give myself two days. Reading all the poems is one thing, but rereading, thumbing back through, making notes, reflecting—those take a little more time.

Rather than skip a day, I’m offering an example of Jericho Brown’s invented form, “the duplex.” It’s been called a combination of sonnet (notice the 14 lines), ghazal, and the blues, but I see in it also the repetitive elements of pantoum and villanelle. Whatever it is, Brown includes several in The Tradition, and in journals I’ve come across other poets trying out the form.


I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.

 I don’t want to leave a messy corpse
Full of medicines that turn in the sun.

Some of my medicines turn in the sun.
Some of us don’t need hell to be good.

Those who need most, need hell to be good.
What are the symptoms of your sickness?

Here is one symptom of my sickness:
Men who love me are men who miss me.

Men who leave me are men who miss me
In the dream where I am an island.

In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there.

                                —Jericho Brown

Okay, I’m officially frustrated. I can’t get every other couplet to indent, the way they’re supposed to. Here’s a picture of a page:

While looking for a new photograph, I discovered that my favorite podcast, On Being, has several poems recorded by Jericho Brown.