Customs: Poems

Graywolf. Mar. 2022. 72p. ISBN 9781644450796. pap. $16. POETRY
Following the National Book Award finalist Look, Sharif’s second collection is alternately scathing, funny, resigned, and transcendent. Her poems interrogate the bonds of social performance and the bureaucratic language of power (“Studies suggest it’s best not to mention problem in front of power even to say there is none”), then invert that lens on poetry itself, as in the tellingly titled “Patronage”: “Poets convinced they are ringmaster/ when it is with big brooms and bins, in fact,/ they enter to clear the elephant scat.” The poems grapple with belonging, what it means to exist inside and outside—of a nation, language, place, or time. Whether probing the arbitrary power of a U.S. customs agent or the language to which one defaults (“To lament the fact of your lamentations in English, English being your first defeat”), speakers confront the gulfs between self and home. The fragmented long poems of the second and third sections effectively utilize absence and space to mirror these ideas.
VERDICT Blistering in its clear-sightedness (“No crueler word than return./ No greater lie”), this collection offers a fierce, beautiful closing that dares to imagine “a beckoning, a way.” A bold and uncompromising book with virtuosic emotional range; highly recommended.
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