Poetry books often become artifacts through personal experience or reputation. They demonstrate why we hunger for labyrinths of beauty and reason. They, like Brandon Shimoda’s newest full-length Portuguese, are otherworldly, intensely present, and unmistakable in their singularity.
Portuguese—the inaugural collection published jointly by Octopus Books and Tin House Books—epitomizes that class of timeless art. It can be found in bookstores or buried in the Southwestern desert. It bears the complicated history of a true artifact: ghostly yet grounded. Its poems glide down a staircase with steps of different sizes. We swoon and jerk. We’re convinced the speaker’s family is our own.
Shimoda’s poems manage a clarity that Sappho would employ in 2013, an empirical exactness, and potency. The reader stands on a wooded island stacked on top of other islands. A whisper grows with the timbre of a boom, and one carries the echo for good luck.
On the jacket of Portuguese, twenty-six blurbs speak in awe of Brandon Shimoda—and rightfully so. I emailed with him over the course of several months, spanning a handful of continents.
Daniel Moysaenko You explain in the epilogue to Portuguese that as a young child an older kid on the school bus called you Portuguese, though to your knowledge you aren’t ethnically Portuguese. You go on to investigate the relationship between your Japanese ancestry and that boy’s insistence on a different identity. A number of poems in Portuguese call to mind this doubleness: hermaphrodites, androgyny, “two wives with one body,” “a face bulging out of another face,” “the possibility of being / In two places simultaneously.” Could you talk a little about that? The liminal space, a bridge between two identified categories—is it obliteration of borders, compassion, complication of self-image, something else?
Brandon Shimoda I’ve experienced the sensation that I am my sister many times—not that I am both myself and the sister of myself, but that I am only one self, my sister, my actual sister: Kelly Shimoda. It’s been awhile since I’ve experienced this, but I remember it well. It was a sensation, both physical and mental, and transitory, of course. In those moments, I had a brother: Brandon Shimoda. I was not Brandon. Brandon was someone else: my brother. It’s possible I was slipping into the body and mind of a third sibling, mostly sister, but not, a sibling neither sister nor brother. I don’t know where I have felt at home, if anywhere. I am half of many things, though do and do not know when to undertake or operate a hyphen.
When my sister got married, I became ordained so that I could perform the wedding. It took place on a farm. A pig was roasted in the ground. As part of a conversation I was having with myself before the wedding, I had a Japanese bride tattooed on my upper part of my left arm. She extends from shoulder to elbow. A hood conceals the bride’s head and face. She is on her way to meet her groom for the first time. The future is extravagant. The present moment, within the hood, is the moment of utmost possibility. It is not that the bride owes her life, in that moment, to imagination, but that she is, for a time, condensed as a star. I feel the same while writing. Not all the time, but I want for the bride. Who is she? I think the poet Matsuo Bashō was transgender. Evidence of this could be found on the back side of his head, facing away from what he was looking at with his eyes and his feet.
One who migrates moves from one place to another. One who emigrates leaves his or her country. One who immigrates arrives in a new one. When my grandfather, Midori Shimoda, was eight, he spent three weeks on a ship—the Africa Maru—sailing from Yokohama, Japan, to Seattle. The year was 1919. He was traveling to the United States to meet his parents. Conceived in Hawaii, born in Hiroshima, raised in Kumamoto, he had never met his father. Midori was traveling alone. With him on the ship, however, were dozens of young Japanese women sailing to the States to meet their husbands for the first time. Many were teenagers. They knew their husbands only from photographs. A year later the immigration of Japanese picture brides to the United States was abolished. So my grandfather was among the final migrations of Japanese picture brides to the United States. Alongside the anxiety and separation he felt from his family and country, the brides became the source not only of his burgeoning faith in the unknown, but of the magnitude of possibility. To arrive is to foreclose a particular phase, to recognize your face or future in the face of a stranger, or not. The face is thought harmless. You live with it; it helps to define you, but it is not your face; your face is on the inside of your head. The Africa Maru was eventually torpedoed off the coast of Taiwan during the Second World War.
Not to be reductive, but I think Portuguese and Poet are synonymous. When someone yells at you across or through a fence and what they are yelling is a name, you might feel, depending on what side of the fence you’re standing on, that the name is not only intended for you, but is yours. It is your name. Only later do you discover the terror of suggestion, the terror of a name, the terror of being named, the terror a voice can exert, and the good and evil that make it sound. I thought I was Portuguese. I didn’t know.
DM Also, you’ve lived all across the United States and many other countries as well. Is there a location that seemed to feed your writing best? Is there a link between travel or temporary, fringe residence and poetry?
BS Temporary, fringe residence! Travel is writing. It is part of what it is for me. Sometimes I don’t consider what I’m doing to be traveling. It’s often more practical. I am constantly seeking places that afford time even more than space. So I move through space for time. There is no location, because the writing keeps changing, and if there is one day a location, I wonder if that means the writing will have ceased to change. The problems deepen, I change as a person, or the context of each action changes. I empty myself to the point where I am confronted by what I’ve emptied myself of, and then what?
I might also be allergic to routine. I travel to renew my vision. I try my best to do so where I am, wherever I am. Travel is useful as long as I’m awake, but it often lures me to sleep too. “So much traveling will put the mind to sleep; one gets used to anything.” Pierre Loti wrote that. The aspiration is the opposite: to be used to nothing. Vision often, if not always, comes from the earth. To be contemporary with the vision, to receive and complement it, is to be visionary. Stan Brakhage said, “There’s very little that’s understandable to me about life, or even bearable, except the seeing of it.”
Some books I’ve read recently: André Gide’s journals from North Africa, Claude Lévi-Strauss’sTristes Tropiques, Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior (Wave Books edition), D. H. Lawrence’sEtruscan Places, Jacques Réda’s The Ruins of Paris, Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice, Joanne Kyger’s Japan and India journals, Merrill Gilfillan’s Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains, Joan Didion’s Salvador, and Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea. I wrote a small book called The Inland Sea. I pay homage in each of the books I’ve written to where they were written. I’m grateful to those places.
DM Years ago you survived mostly on bacon. You ate a pound at night and then wrote in bed, correct? What’s your favorite vegetable, and could you live and write off it?
BS The vegetables I’ve been enjoying lately, here in Taiwan, are taro root, water spinach, lotus root, sweet potato, broccoli, daikon radish, radish cakes, dragon’s moustache, which is also called dragon’s whiskers, and eggplant. I don’t know which one is my favorite or which I could live and write off. All or none of them, broccoli.
DM What was your poetry education like?
BS Robinson Jeffers sat on a rock. The first poem I memorized was his. “Shine, Perishing Republic.” Facing the Pacific and away from the United States. I misread the way he sat, his facing away from the nation. I had, and have, little facility for memorizing poems. My excuse is that I want the experience to be always new, meeting each word as a discovery, genuine, as if by invention, not foretold, certainly not by my consciousness, primeval.
In high school, my friends and I were in a band. It was largely conceptual. We wrote and recorded songs, but were more interested in “merchandise” and fabricating instruments out of garbage. One of our songs was “Song for Corbière,” which was my friend Phil Cordelli reciting Tristan Corbière’s “Rondel” over skeletal guitar effects. “It’s getting dark, child, robber of sparks! / No more nights, no more days … Your friends the bears will not come.” That is what I remember. Around that time, Phil and our friend Adam and I went to a rave at the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary’s church. We bought acid, took several hits apiece, and walked through a retirement community to get to there. It was winter. There was snow. High. Old women were watching television in their apartments, alone. We stood at the windows and watched them. We wanted them to invite us in! Reaching the street, we saw an old man struggling down an icy sidewalk. He was walking slowly, kept slipping, but did not fall, and we yelled, “ARE YOU OKAY?! ARE YOU OKAY?!” He kept walking, slipping, almost falling, and we, standing in the snow on the other side of the street, tripping on acid, kept yelling, yet utterly incapable of crossing the street to help him. We were paralyzed, and we were disintegrating. The night took a series of terrible turns from there. Phil and Adam wrote poems that were later published in our high school literary magazine. Phil still writes and has a book forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse. Adam still writes and keeps a blog at matzohandmeatballs.tumblr.com. Neither poem had anything to do with that night, the rave, the acid, the old women, or the old man slipping down the sidewalk. This was 1994, 1995. I don’t remember anything else about poetry before this time.
DM Portuguese commands the reader’s attention with urgency, image, and personal history made multiplicitous. Would you say poetry calls people to confront themselves and their surroundings, or is that the work of another medium, like therapy?
BS I don’t know what therapy calls upon people to confront. Hypnotherapy? I believe in the work of another medium, something like poetry, in fact, but in the guise of some form of vanishing excellence. I have been as occluded from myself as opened onto something I could apprehend, not know, but understand or feel, by poetry as by anything else. It’s possible poetry bears the potential to call on people to confront themselves and their surroundings, but fruition depends upon both the poem and person. So much falls apart either by satisfaction or friction. Many poems have endured nothing to exist, so their call is that of a bar of soap rubbed constantly against a body until only a vagrant hair remains. It seems that people are able to base improvements to their lives upon poems that endure nothing to exist—that are, among other things, arbitrary, frivolous, and unthinking. But does that mean the improvements are autonomous from the poems?
Chronologically speaking, we will be dead infinitely longer than alive, yet death is something people avoid, in part for it being unbelievable. Other people devote their lives, in some fashion, to death. I think the nature of poetry’s call could pass unawares, even to those of us most dedicated to it; the mast raises elsewhere, in a radicalized version of ourselves we might not recognize for being, in fact, dead, or transfigured by the works we’ve made or cared about. Poetry can be a process of decision-making, and later a process of problem solving. But the problems have to be legitimate. And not all decisions yield solutions. Many decisions are terrible. So what can be learned from the process of writing a poem, or reading one, is often terrible. I don’t know where one becomes better. We make eleven hundred million decisions. Often the poem we are making does not bear a legitimate problem. Often we make things by the force of a singular impulse and at a rate that does not afford us the space to benefit in any way humanistic or spiritual. The world itself is visionary, not people.
DM Several of your longer poems contain internal titles or stanzas on separate pages. Is this technique to pace the reader, perhaps reinforce the doubleness I mentioned earlier with a matroyshka-doll effect, or accomplish something else?
BS About three years ago, my friend, the poet Amanda Nadelberg, had surgery on her left hip. She had arthritis at 28. Her left hip now includes, in addition to flesh and bone, a titanium pin, some plastic, and some porcelain. In her apartment, hanging on the refrigerator, is an X-ray of her pelvis. The left hip, in this X-ray, is bright white and resembles a tall, slender woman with the head of a mushroom. The woman is leaning toward a horizon. She appears to be listening, intently, with her eyes closed. She is an African figurine, a white African figurine, with a prominent shoulder. She is glowing. She is like a spirit. What glows to make the woman-spirit white is, I imagine, another spirit, a third one—so there is Amanda, her hip’s African woman-spirit, and another one would have to carve open in order to apprehend. It would appear Amanda is the limit of this world, or else the advent of another. When I first saw Amanda’s left hip—in X-ray—I thought: it is a Russian doll. What are they called again? Nesting dolls, matroyshka dolls.
Spirits and spirits-within-spirits can be threatening because they betray the ease of a causal, linear existence. I don’t know if the techniques I’ve employed in certain of my poems are techniques or just the way they came out. Poems have spirits lodged within their spirits too, and part of the process is to carve open what is most immediately tangible to apprehend the spirit, or spirits, within. It is not that a poem is incomplete, but that it is somehow broken, shattered, and begins to propagate wherever there might be fertile space, whether I am turned toward it or not. I try to be open. I often capitalize lines of poems that appear to be embedded titles, but they are not so. Other times a poem will have several poems within, though it is still one.
DM Many of your poems narrate fiercely visual moments. What’s your relationship to visual art?
BS This is the most difficult to answer, though maybe the easiest. So my answer will have to be far shorter than what I could actually say, because I could go on forever. And because my relationship to visual art is so much older, so much less complicated, and perhaps so much more pure than my relationship to poetry, which is mercurial to say the least.
Aside from being a pitcher for the Oakland Athletics, I long thought I would be a visual artist. Though I am, I failed and am unable to bring the projections to shine in the way that I’d like. So I’ve done away with liking them. There are poems and drawings. My poems emerged, originally, from visual work, as texts, transects of performance energy. I knew artists before I knew poets. The energy of artists was present and ongoing, while that of poets felt enshrined within a box very quickly losing luster and air. Maybe because there was, when I was young, nowhere to go in which to commune with poetry, whereas art was accessible in museums. I did not yet understand that books too were seats of the muses. I thought poems were, by definition, written by people who were already dead, whereas I could be an artist, I could be alive.
In the early 1980s, when I was still young enough to fit in a stroller, my mother pushed me around museums. We lived in Belgium. She was looking at the art. I was looking at the walls. I fell asleep. She thought about and wanted desperately to make art, but had a family. It was difficult; she wasn’t there yet, but the museums were. The art was. She remembers Flemish landscapes and Peter Paul Rubens.
The longest uninterrupted time I’ve spent looking at a single painting is three hours: Cy Twombly’s Coronation of Sesostris, at the Gagosian Gallery in New York—ten paintings, actually.
In September 2001, living in Brooklyn, I drew, on a small piece of glossy white paper, a white aster.
There is a photograph of my sister and me standing before Rodin’s Gates of Hell. In the photograph, we are exceptionally small, because whoever was taking the picture was standing far enough away to capture the entirety of the gates. Behind the gates is a white wall, and behind the white wall is a green hedge, and behind the green hedge is the top of a leafless tree.
DM Do you prefer telephone or written communication?
DM City or country?
BS Both. I think that in the United States city is where people go when they realize, consciously or not, that they don’t trust the American experiment and that they want, rather, to climb back into the womb of the King. Unless they were born there, in the womb, which has, in many instances, been yanked out and discarded, or otherwise turned inside out. This is in the guise of great trust in the American experiment and a belief that it is centralized in city. This is not true of all cities or people, but there is a general loss of faith in country. Andcountry is where people go when they have lost faith in city.
Have you seen an invasive species being pulled down into the depths by a dominating species and eaten? It happens with honeybees. If I were less mobile then I wouldn’t be able to answer this question, or enjoy it. Many relationships begin in labor, and much labor is unjust, even criminal. I’ve lived in small apartments in large cities, larger apartments in smaller cities, and houses in small towns. As the location trends from city to country, the spaces in which I’ve lived have increased in size. But when I was living in a field in central Missouri, I lived in a tent—the smallest space in which I’ve lived—though the field was the largest. So the tent was actually more of a facet than a separation. When I think of integrity beyond beauty, I think of a tree there in central Missouri. When I think of moments that have defined my happiness, wherever it has been, I think of a cliff ledge on the coast of Maine and sitting there with my friends hallucinating, in the air above the water, a vagina made of vegetables, less sexual than affirmative. Country made me a poet; city showed me how to be one. Outside of New York, I don’t think there is any city—at all—in the United States, because city is the integrated balance between myth and reality, and the United States is, as I see it, mostly unmythological. Is there a truly mythological city in the United States? Even the best representatives seem to be preserving themselves against imagination and the past. Where there is no apparent history, or where history has been razed or turned inside out, synthetically, there is, to my mind, no city. Berlin and Mexico City are wonderful. I love Kyoto above all. The rest are mirages.