Solmaz Sharif, “America”

It’s the pacing. The pacing crushes. Listen to how these short, bullet-like sentences fire and linger: I had to. I learned it. It was if. With “I had to,” necessity breaks comfort. A hint of bitterness remains. “I learned it” follows, bringing a sense of resolve, a resolution, a regret. “It was if” concludes the trio ambiguously. A word signifying possibility—”if”—hangs. “It,” “if,” could be possibility. But possibility itself includes what is unknown to the point of dangerous. It was if:

America (from Harper's Magazine)
Solmaz Sharif

I had
to. I
learned it.
It was
if. If
was nice.
I said
sure. One
more thing.
One more
thing. Eat
it said.
It felt
good. I
was dead.
I learned
it. I
had to. 

It was if. If was nice. Sharif paints America as a temptation narrative. I said sure. One more thing. Something “nice” was had after necessary, hard work. Something “nice” was had after fighting with old ways of thinking and doing, ways indicating another sense of value. We did what America asked us to do—we remade ourselves in pursuit of opportunity—and we got “nice.” “Nice,” in that we achieved an end and it was more pleasant than much of the process. Ask any minority in America: name the process and you’ve named a special sort of hell. It’s very hard for me to imagine myself saying to another person “do this, it’s the most important thing,” treating them like they’re utterly invisible while they do it, and then, after they’ve achieved, acknowledging that yes, something has been done. But that’s the reality of race and class in America. Your achievements are only yours, as “nice” is mainly your self-satisfaction.

It’s a self-satisfaction that allows some of us to do great things while breaking ourselves. One more thing. Eat it said. It felt good. I was dead. One could say Sharif is critiquing American consumerism, the continual indulgence of appetite. I don’t think anyone will dispute consumerism is poisonous. The deeper question is whether America’s promises are poisonous. If that’s the case, that means even our best efforts are doomed. And I believe that’s where the poem wants us to go—it wants us to bring some hard questions to our best efforts.

Should we not achieve in America because we’re being manipulated? It’s clearer to me than ever before that the humanities are power. That the whole point of encouraging people into professional life is to prevent them from even thinking of taking actual leadership positions. If people believe they are “productive,” they are—they’re producing for the system, and they’re not asking pesky questions about whether the law is actually just or children are being separated from their families or whether we’re waging wars on behalf of tyrants in order to literally steal oil. Eliot’s line “This, then, is the greatest treason / To do the right thing for the wrong reason” doesn’t just haunt, it paralyzes. You wonder whether you should do anything in a world indifferent to your existence but eager to receive your labor. I was dead. I learned it. I had to—the final lesson is the necessity of motion. The hard questions can’t actually be asked from beyond a corruption, a poison, so comprehensive. We have to work within, pacing ourselves.

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