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A Review of Brandon Shimoda’s The Inland Sea (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008) and The Alps (Flim Forum Pr

 A Review of Brandon Shimoda’s The Inland Sea (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008) and The Alps (Flim Forum Press, 2008).

2008 saw the arrival of two distinct and exciting poetic works by Brandon Shimoda, a chapbook entitled The Inland Sea and a full collection from Flim Forum Press called The Alps.  While I have taken the time to often mention Myung Mi Kim in my reviews, I am again reminded her work immediately with Shimoda precisely because I am drawn to his lyrics through the way in which war is elliptically referenced.   Whereas Kim employed the diasporic trajectory to configure how which memory and inheritance fragment and estrange successive generations from the war experience, so too does The Inland Sea and The Alps find the reader attempting to navigate a barrage of sparse images and phrases, experimental sequences to discover constant, yet oblique references to conflict, brutality, and psychic trauma.  I have not taken the time to review any chapbooks yet, but the “form” is interesting as it seems to require much more structural coherence as a group of collected lyrics.  The “inland seas” referenced in the chapbook’s title are “Lake Norman” in 1996 and Seto-nakai, which is Japan’s inland sea, marked off with its own year, 1909.  These two inland seas are separated by Hiroshima in 1945.  Immediately, with the date of 1945 and the geography of Hiroshima, we know that the atomic bomb is just around the corner.  Like many poets, Shimoda plays with the spacing of the lines on the page, which I cannot reproduce exactly, but the effect of the sparse words against a backdrop of wide expanses of white pages gives greater emphasis to each syllabic and sonic packet.  Take for instance this excerpt from, “In the Middle of Migration”: “we find ourselves/ turning—/ recalcitrant in the ancient domain/ masks simultaneously black/ we know not/ the sensible thing/ sugar mammal, slit throat/ tethered to the thickest spar/ between home and adopted home/ makes no difference in times like these/ without bothering to unfold the map/ or take it from its sleeve/ climb the rungs of bone and limb/ to pierce what version of skin or sky/ the solvent leaks.”  The question here first is related to the person that is doing the migrating.  The “we” invoked by the lyric does suggest a larger group of bodies, perhaps then a diaspora and this sentiment is configured through the phrase, “between home and adopted home.”  Everywhere, the readers will note the violence that accompanies these migrations with images such as “slit throat” and “rungs of bone and limb” and “to pierce what version of skin,” but early on it is unclear what the speaker is referencing.  Interestingly, the pages of the chapbook are unnumbered and contribute to this sense of disorientation.  As the chapbook moves forward, it is clear then that the psychic geography of war and its aftermath is being considered:  “it is injurious to wear one’s self around one’s waist/ in radiation first    is flash/ burn, second/ flame.”  Here, the atomic bomb is clearly being referenced and these lyrics appear unbidden, punctuating stark tracts of concatenating images:  “slips/ from tilted rock, burning/ I must be burning too    my.”  I am thinking here for a moment of Abraham and Torok’s theory of transgenerational phantom in this sense that the lyric speaker suffers from a burning too, perhaps something traveling across time and space, across inland seas.  This chapbook clearly is a promising debut, so it was with much anticipation that I read The Alps from the innovative Flim Forum Press. 

            Like the chapbook, the poetry collection works to reference these challenging psychic geographies and the mapping of this space occurs across the page and across different global sites.  The Alps being referenced here are the Swiss Alps, and so much of the poetry collection does connect to us to cold and mountainous images.  Characteristic of these “alpine” terrains is “So Pure and Fresh I love the Air The Plants The Dark,” which I reprint below. 


Generation in a landscape

none belong

to us, the sick


snow-drawn generation

in a landscape bred

upon transhuman

soil growing tongues towards the ice


none belong

to us, the lines

in the landscape hanging

our hunger, the flowers

growing towards the tongues


are killer and killer

abundant landscape ope

though none belong


to us, this stem

uncurling when it all will want

to flatten precisely its target (17).


The character of Shimoda’s poetry is always such that we are unsettled.  Here, even in this seemingly pristine and snowy environment, there is the sense of an encroachment, where “none belong.”  We recall from the chapbook again the movement of bodies across oceans and new countries and occasionally, one cannot help but read allegories into Shimoda’s work.  Given the starkness of the lyrics, one wonders exactly, for instance, how exactly flowers are “killer and killer” or the stem can “flatten precisely its target”?  If nature is read in such a fashion, then all that is living seems to be capable of such brutality, such violence.  

Flim Forum Press is clearly positing itself as a small press devoted to innovation.  In the next sequence of poems, there are a number of blank squares that are situated above poetic tracts.  These blank squares remind me of course of Russian abstract formalist paintings (I am thinking of Malevich’s “White on White” here, “Eight Red Rectangulars”), one wonders what is supposed to appear within them.  This unsettlement and disorientation dovetails with the lyrics.  In “Trinity,” we return again to the question of the psychic after-effects of the atomic bomb:





The first atomic weapon


to deal the climate of effects, holding

sound to the depths

a white mammal

unbecoming            the shadows (60). 


In “So Pure and Fresh I love the Air The Plants The Dark,” we saw the ways in which plants could be read as dangerous subjects.  Here, what is unclear is if the atomic bomb is being compared against “a white mammal.”  Who is the “white mammal,” and is this image another way of envisioning the physical description of the bomb after it is denotated, exactly as it is so bright as to eliminate “the shadows”?  Trinity of course is also the name of the first test for the atomic bomb, but its name certainly does have a blasphemous tone to it in its potential evocation of God.  In “Isolation,” The Alps seems to turn to post-war or war context.  Once again, the specific time and place is a little unclear, although there is certainly the sense of death again as the opening lines reveal the “deathly” location. 


Garnet fog

in the cemetery


where the girl looked

like a boy made me nervous


a thin growth of scalps

where the boy the boy’s mother fed

me butter cookies


and the American Americans

stood upon the slate

focused their lenses on the too-tight briefs

chatted the dough and glands

in unwieldy—balm and udder—strings

from the trees upon the Irish

Americans spread upon the Japanese

Americans as milk/ as the hand

shuttles the Scottish hole, churning

the American Japanese

the indigenous cream or the gentians—


throughout the motivations

to traverse the cropping continent


I will meet you

            ice around our feet


These butter cookies have no taste—

Did you put sugar in them? (106-107).


Since there is the constant reference to Americans in this poem, I can’t help but think of the American occupation of Japan after the conclusion of World War 2, but then there is this reference to the “Scottish hole,” but the collision of cultures is precisely what is at stake here in the production of desserts, the butter cookies, and this “indigenous cream.”   The phrase, “to traverse the cropping continent,” gives us this sense that there is some sort of movement, perhaps them this point of national and cultural interaction.

            It is supremely difficult to complete a reading of this collection without a reference to the ways in which Shimoda utilizes the page space and introduces wonderfully inventive visual graphics.  There is a section that is extremely difficult to describe, but is something of a letter and word tornado, with jumbles and strings of letter in rough forms that from a distance look something like Rorschach test.  He would be therefore a clear addition to the experimental impulse to contemporary American lyric poetry and for purposes of my interests to Asian American experimental poetry.  All in all, Shimoda’s debuts dazzle the eye and the mind. 


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Tags: asian american poetry, book review
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