Brandon Shimoda’s The Girl Without Arms (Black Ocean, 2011) is a stunning book of visionary depth and mesmerizing incantation, particularly when read in connection with his preceding and subsequent collections, such as O Bon (Litmus Press, 2012). Generous and interesting: his responses to the interview prompts “Vision vs. Images,” “Abundance, Wreckage, and Insurrectionary Prettiness, & How Much Can a Moment in Poetry Bear,” “The Direct Address,” and “‘I Should Be Telling You about Maine’.”
The Girl Without Arms begins “For a moment seems / the only way.” Let me thank Brandon for the moments that follow those lines in the book and for the moments below, each an only way. ZS
FOUR for ZACH SAVICH
by Brandon Shimoda
VISION vs. IMAGES
I lived for two months in a friend’s apartment in Seattle. I was in the midst of looking for a place of my own. It was the fall of 2008. My friend’s apartment was spacious, old, with white walls; consisted of books, bookshelves, tables, desks, plants: a perfect sanctuary. His was my transitional space. He was then in New York—I had the place to myself. Almost as soon as I had gotten settled, I started to see black shapes on the white walls, traversing the walls and the ceilings. Some pressed forth from the white walls, hung bunched like bags; others bore the weight of mounds of black dirt—moving slowly; others hollow, waiting to be filled. I took notes on their shapes and the immediate conditions. I referred to them as graves. They never touched the floor. I wanted them to. I decided—arbitrarily, confidently—that if they touched the floor, they would no longer be able to hold their shape; they would lose gravity and disappear.
As I write this—early 2012—only one of my grandparents is dead: my father’s father, Midori. He was born in Hiroshima (1910), died in North Carolina (1996). Two months after his death, we convened in Death Valley to scatter his ashes. A memorial cairn was built of rocks we each chose from the hill across which his ashes were scattered. Traditionally, there is the ritual grave and the burial grave. The ritual grave is where people gather to pray and make offerings. The burial grave is where the dead are actually buried. The ritual grave is public, accessible. The burial grave is often in the wilderness, remote. Sometimes even spouses and siblings forget where it is and thereafter never find it again. Fifteen years after my grandfather’s death, in November 2011, we convened again in Death Valley. This time, we were unable to locate the hill or the memorial cairn. The stretch of Death Valley between Boundary Canyon and the dunes seems to be nothing but hills piled with rocks. It possesses a separate memory. We ultimately agreed on a hill not far from the road, at the top of which was a scattering of rocks—a disbanded pile—and a hole in the ground the size of a small body.
I saw a dim shape forming on the wall between the foot of the bed and the wash-stand… Before sleeping or just on wakening, there was a solid shape before my eyes, no luminous cloud-pictures or vague fantasy, but an altar-shaped block of stone. When I was very young, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was being antagonized by lines—geometric lines—floating in white and depthless space though occasionally crosshatching a field of sand. I once screamed so loud I woke an entire hotel in Florence. I cannot explain what the lines were doing, only that they were horrific, behaved like a swarm. The poet Christine Hume told me once that her daughter—maybe 3 or 4 at the time—had a nightmare in which there was a single line on the ceiling. Or maybe there actually was one. The blind monk Hoichi was able to re-enact the entirety of the tragic Battle of Dan-no-ura by singing and strumming his biwa before a congregation of ghostly fires in a moon-black cemetery.
I was twelve when I first visited the city of Hiroshima. My sister Kelly and I walked ahead of our parents along the east bank of the Motoyasu River, between a stone wall sloped steeply into the water and a manicured hedge in front of the hollowed-out Genbaku Dome. It was Saturday, August 18, 1990. I visited again twenty-one years later, the first week of August 2011. It was the sixty-sixth anniversary of the bombing of the city, August 6, 1945. August 6 is also my birthday; I turned thirty-three. It was our last full day in Japan. Lisa and I were staying in a hostel near the Genbaku Dome. Lisa prepared a breakfast of fruit. At 8:15 in the morning, we stood with fifty thousand people in a park between two rivers and listened to the tolling of the memorial bell, a sound, with its encircling silence, I was not prepared for.
One idea proposed by the Manhattan Project scientists early in the development of the uranium and plutonium bombs—dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively—was to drop, moments before the bombs themselves, sirens emitting a deafening noise, so that the people on the ground would be compelled to look up into the sky, wondering what was making such a terrible sound, and with the flash from the bombs shortly after, be instantly blinded.
It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.—Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where on encounters them is language.
I don’t remember any of the flowers or trees, or their names, in Hiroshima, in the city or where we hiked on Miyajima in the Inland Sea. A description would be closer than what I might actually remember, though even that would be pre-verbal. My great-grandmother, Kawaki Okamoto Shimoda, could neither read nor write. She designed an insignia she used to sign official papers, including the travel documents she needed to immigrate from Hiroshima to Honolulu, in the early 1900s, when it was still legal for Japanese picture brides to enter the United States. The insignia appears to me, her great-grandson, far more complex a signature than the Japanese characters of her name would have been.
One month after my grandfather died, and a month before his ashes were scattered in Death Valley, my grandfather visited me. It was morning. I was sleeping on a foldout couch in an otherwise empty room in the house I grew up in. I was the only one there in the house. This was October 1996. I was asleep when a loud thunderclap woke me, and as I opened my eyes with a start and sat up, there was a surge of total light. Every light in the house had turned on. At that moment I felt first with my body something moving in the hallway to my left. I turned to see a dark figure mounting the final few stairs of the staircase, coming up into the hallway. The dark figure was that of a man. He was dark as if charred; later I would say he was like a man of ash. His hand was on the banister. He was rising into the hallway, facing forward, with his head tilted down. Reaching the top of the stairs and turning right into the room next to the one I was in, the man of ash, with his head tilted down, became clear to me. The man of ash was my grandfather. He was there in the house. All that had happened—from the thunderclap to the lights turned on to the man of ash rising the stairs into the hall to the recognition that the man of ash was my grandfather to my grandfather turning right into the room next to mine—had happened in a matter of seconds. I threw myself off the couch and into the hallway, and followed my grandfather into the room.
NOTE: Italicized passages from H.D. Tribute to Freud and Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project.
ABUNDANCE, WRECKAGE, and INSURRECTIONARY PRETTINESS & HOW MUCH CAN A MOMENT IN POETRY BEAR
I dropped out of my freshman year of college and burned everything I owned. It was the spring semester, 1997. I knew it was coming—as though foretold from without—so I gave away (sold, donated) most of my books, saving them from the flames. I did burn maybe two-dozen: Science Fiction seemed especially appropriate. Otherwise: everything ever written, printed, received; maps, notes, notebooks, poems, stories; drawings, collages, paintings—on paper, canvas, wood; letters, postcards, birthday cards, photographs of friends, family, holidays; cassettes, CDs, socks and underwear. I saved a few items of clothing, two small tape recorders and a guitar.
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment.
My friend John Melillo—writer, musician—emailed me the above-quoted passage a couple days after we first met. It was September 2011. The passage is from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. I wrote back to John, I love the greased pivot between chaos and order—greased, now, by song. And the song being “like a rough sketch,” almost that the sketch of a calm and stabilizing center must remain a sketch, to keep its entrances and egresses—AWAY from that center—open, or else—what would happen if the sketch was realized? And I went on to write, I’ve always been interested—curious—about the compulsion towards the inventory or catalog in poems facing into an incomprehensible event—that the mind both reverts and confirms in prediction its automatic nature—an instrument, a counter, to which John wrote, I like what you say about listing/enumerating. The reduction into numbers of lists—or even the unstable numbers of a verse entirely against or outside “versification”—being the precise point between the abstract that calms and the concrete that confuses. Naming, counting, (rhythming, then) sees (hears) everything else as the same everything else (Thales: everything is water) (countable, skippable, matter not things). The sound bounces off things and echoes back as resounding/space…which of course very quickly dissipates into chaos. To which I wrote, I’ve been thinking about the “sketch” of that “calm and stabilizing center”—and how there is something absolutely HELLISH about that center, something psychotic (sociopathic?) about transmuting one’s experience into listing, enumerating. I read or listen to poets in those modes and moments of listing/enumerating, and think that though they might be achieving some small concentration of the SUN, they are also surely closer to TOTAL COMBUSTION—we don’t actually want to die peacefully, do we? We only say we do—or some people say they do. Because, how familiar is peace? There is always SOMETHING else. Anyway, that “sketch”—it truly confounds. And then went on to write, I’ve lost myself—I need a couple of deeply considered lines about clouds… The center, however, is like an eye inverting itself into a mouth. To which John wrote, I think that’s it, exactly, to ask, “How familiar is peace?” Because the center is always “a sketch” that adds itself to the conflagration, it is always an invention, just as unfamiliar as the outside it creates (and from which it ultimately comes). I don’t know if enumeration actually brings peace so much as the possibility of power—a sketch of power—a kind of controlled circuit: the familiar only becomes so because the new, unfamiliar, unconscious even, is held fast. I think the psychotic thing is that grasping, that tenacious tenuousness, at all costs—symbolically, of course, the cost is always failure/death. Nothing really changes about a situation because a circle is drawn or a center is formed—since it’s all the chaotic mashing of bric-a-brac against bric-a-brac anyhow. The thing about the list is that its very self-sacrificial tenaciousness/tendency is, of course, melancholic, messianic, and cold: to remain ordered in that way is a bit disturbing. To put it perhaps too simply (and I don’t even know if I’m talking in metaphor or reality at this point): it’s perhaps most RATIONAL to go insane—to GIVE IN—to events in the midst of war. Or, it’s insane to be sane in those moments. But if Hobbes is right and we’re in eternal war with everyone else all the time (and in war with time, too)…
While listening to the poet Joanna Klink read a poem in a gallery in downtown Missoula, Montana, in front of a large picture window, black but for reflecting Joanna’s back and the faces of the audience—on a quiet night in 2007—the poem intense and unraveling, propelled by exasperation, a deep concern for people entrapped, the amplitude of every person and thing from whom and from which each pulse has been snapped, all of us, love, herself, the poem, the precariousness of the poem in holding it all, the disaster in the attempt, the disarming beauty of it happening before us—I thought of my friend Phil, who I grew up with and who, one night many years earlier, attempted to throw himself through a large plate-glass window on the first floor of the Knights of Columbus Hall across the street from St. Mary’s Church in a small town in Connecticut. The window was also black. We were standing on the outside of the window looking in. It was winter 1992, or maybe 1994. It is not that Phil wanted in to the Knights of Columbus. He wanted to break the glass to give himself a shard with which to cut himself open. Nobody would break the glass for him; he was attempting to do it himself. The glass was firm. People were inside the Knights of Columbus, seen through the glass as amoebic prefigurements. Phil’s twisted face reflected through the amoebic prefigurements. He had to dismantle everyone there; his future was in the shard. He had to bleed everyone out. He did not want to die. He never wanted to die. He wanted to be relieved.
I understood my friend then as an organic integrity struggling—working—at the margins of his own being—not to mention at the margins of the world, which don’t actually exist; the center can be measured in concentric circles in mere inches from where any of us are standing—and thinking—believing—that since existence is in a state of continual expansion, how exactly like the black walnut tree in that field in central Missouri he is: amid destruction, self-destruction and chaos, not a single cell is out of place …
THE DIRECT ADDRESS
The poet Miklos Radnoti knew he was going to die. I said this to Josh and Zach—a different Zach—Schomburg; Josh—Joshua Marie Wilkinson—at a sandwich bar—a bar that sells sandwiches—in Tucson, Arizona, one night. Over sandwiches, simplifying. There was no doubt; Miklos could feel—could smell—the bodies closing in. Maybe that was the thing: there was no doubt, therefore how could there have been, in that knowing, faith? And who is that figure standing on Orion’s shoulders as he, Orion, rushes blindly towards the sun, standing with the hopefulness of someone who can speak directly into Orion’s ears through his or her kneecaps? It has yet to be proven that the underworld yields less of a fruitful life than the world above. Right? So it is maybe difficult to say who leaves who, who turns away from who, who loses out, who wins, who immediately perishes, and at the expense of which parts of the body. Even if I am staring directly into Josh’s or Zach’s kneecaps, not to mention into my friend in Seattle’s kneecaps, or Midori’s—Hilda’s kneecaps, Christine Hume’s, Christine Hume’s daughter’s, Hoichi’s kneecaps (inked with holy sutras), my sister Kelly’s kneecaps, the kneecaps of the Manhattan Project scientists, Walter’s kneecaps, Kawaki’s, Gilles’s, Felix’s, John’s kneecaps, Joanna’s kneecaps, Phil’s kneecaps—there’s no telling if either or any of them, or you, might dislodge a knee or leg or arm or two or four or six in my chest to free the final words.
“I SHOULD BE TELLING YOU ABOUT MAINE”
My friend Elisabeth wrote me a letter once from a cabin on an inlet near the coast of Maine. It was the cabin—down an overgrown path through the woods; in the summer fireflies and white campion—she lived in for a few years off-and-on. It was a single room, a bed, two tables—one large, one a desk—an enormous and old wood-burning stove, black, a couple of chairs, some shelves and a sink. The cabin sat on a slope of rock fogged into the tides. Growing up through the rock: Goose tongues hollying out like cloched fruit / Among deadstock / Mist has head and groundcover. Red / Flowers knocking green mud to the knee. I spent a week there in the summer of 2008. Things were not going well in my life. I was then living in Montana, soon moving to Washington. I needed to be in Elisabeth’s cabin. And to visit Elisabeth, who has always brought me back to the earth. My sister was getting married the following week, on a farm in upstate New York, and she had asked if I would officiate the wedding. I was feeling massively un-fit for the role, but could not say no to my sister. So I spent a week in Elisabeth’s cabin, drinking rhubarb whisky, working on a puzzle of boats in a harbor, and writing: notes for the wedding, notes I titled Disquiet, which would then become poetry, then eventually The Girl Without Arms. I started writing these notes in another cabin, in Rock Creek, Montana, where my friend Lucas was living. I had moved out of my house—or been kicked out, I don’t remember, exactly—and was sleeping on the couch in Lucas’s single-room cabin, this one on the bend of a creek. It rained for weeks. The creek was rising. With the creek at the door, I wrote two poems, the two that would become the first two poems in The Girl Without Arms. From them and there to these: I had in Elisabeth’s cabin, in addition to her books, which she kept on a shelf high above her bed, three books from the small public library, all coincidentally by poets named Robert: Creeley, Duncan and Pack, the last of whom I had studied Stevens’ Auroras of Autumn earlier in the year. It was by the test of their minds that I wrote the speech I delivered beneath a tree at my sister’s wedding.
Gordon Massman reviewed The Girl Without Arms on his blog, Gordon Massman’s blog—which, at a quick glance, seems to now be defunct—and in his review he mentions the above-quoted lines: Goose tongues hollying out, etc., saying, Regardless of whether hollying and clotched are actual words (they are not), I cannot imagine goose tongues doing that to fruit, nor mist with or without a head and groundcover. And I definitely do not have the power to understand this sequence of images. Goose tongues are commonly known as sea plantain (plantago maritima), a perennial, primarily coastal, plant, native to northern North America, including some parts of Maine. They resemble the tongues of geese. Gordon writes that he cannot imagine goose tongues doing that to fruit, though I don’t know what he means by doing that to, despite very much liking the possibilities there. The line is like: Goose tongues hollying out like cloched fruit: an action, yes—a performance—but not an acting or performing upon, at least not as I originally thought. Maybe it lacks a kind of truth—not finding itself in the upsweep. Gordon also questions whether hollying and clotched are actual words. Actually, he says they are not. He’s half right: clotched is not a word, and neither is it in the poem. The word in the poem is cloched, as in: cloche, white netting used to protect plants. Maybe Gordon misspelled it? And hollying, as in: holly, a shrub, with white flowers and red fruit. Maybe I could have drawn a picture? Actually, I did, or attempted to: I wrote a poem. Gordon could have said simply that the poem is shit—at least then his contention would not have been necessarily wrong. Actually, his main contention, at least in looking at these particular lines, is with what the poem has not offered, that is: taken away from him, as he says, I cannot imagine … And I definitely do not have the power to understand. I’m not sure how I feel about having written a poem that has elicited such feelings of deficiency in a reader—I am reaching especially into definitely—though I feel this is not exactly what hemeans. He’s also not saying the poem is shit—his reading his far more engaged than that. Though I don’t aim to be understood, I don’t know in which direction to turn when a poem fails the imagination, or when a poem enforces the assumption—even if false—that power must be summoned outside of itself—All truth is the transference of power (Ernest Fenollosa); or imagination’s failing is enforced, unwittingly, obliquely, or matter is not converted into energy, but into a kind of debilitating fog, even if momentary, and is there.
Once, about a month after first meeting Elisabeth, I absent-mindedly called her Liz. She had to remind me that her name was not Liz, but Elisabeth. I can still feel her look of terrible and accusatory disappointment. It was a moment of false familiarity—a moment which had divested itself of the need, for whatever reason, to pay genuine attention, which must be renewed, radicalized, in every moment, as the moments accumulate and overlap, faces and names and white nettings, white flowers, red fruit spinning through chaos and confusion to coherence. And yet, I am happy that Gordon—in whose name I feel the trawling of fog over the ripest goose tongues, tonsils even—gave some part of himself to this passage—among others that he did—in which I was also trying if not to summon power then at least find some sustaining reason in so much quickly escaping.
Elisabeth now lives in a defunct corn cannery in another part of Maine. She is a fiction writer, she writes stories. Hers elaborate a wondrous and rigorous human ecology. I have always loved her writing, Turgenev, Woolf, Faulkner, Kawabata, Benjamin, which doesn’t necessarily mean she was born in the 19th century, though sometimes I think so. I turn to her writing—the record of where she is and what she is experiencing, the dynamic between living and sub- and supra-living things, in precisely those moments, though also as refracted through a wild and specific parallel incarnation of where she is or might imagine to be—in order to be more fully awake where I am in precisely these moments. This is not what we ask for, necessarily. This is what happens—and though we think about it, it remains rare, however total, then quickly dissolves. Elisabeth currently writes in what she describes as an eyrie, which I envision as the glassed-in bow of a ship. She also writes letters. I have a stack of letters I’ve received over the years; at least half of them are from Elisabeth. her most recent letter to me she typewrote on two separate days in January: the 13th and the 16th, postmarked on the 17th. The letter I was originally referring to, when I started to write this response to your question, Zach, was actually not a letter at all. I was mistaken. It was a phone call. After visiting Elisabeth, after my sister’s wedding, after leaving Montana, after a few months of being in Seattle, after I had moved into a tiny studio apartment, in which my mattress was wedged into my closet, Elisabeth and I had a phone conversation, in which she said, I SHOULD BE TELLING YOU ABOUT MAINE … and then the phone cut out, and I was left to imagine what she might have said about Maine.
The first time Elisabeth experienced the phenomenon of phosphorescence in nature was during low tide in the inlet below her cabin in Maine. All the seaweed was exposed. She walked down to the water and everywhere she stepped, the seaweed lit up.
Wherever anyone is or however far or whatever anyone might be doing wherever they are, I can feel their presence in moments like these as phosphorescence. My life might be born of these moments, maybe, but also the energy with which they are shared, which amounts to an extension of the moments themselves: attention, again, by which the mind might empathize into being in and with the presence of others. It begins with one sharing at what they are looking. Also, for a brief time, the cannery canned blueberries.