(Litmus Press, 2011)

 

 

Brandon Shimoda’s O Bon lyrically and riskily reinvents the Japanese ritual obon, an honoring of deceased ancestors. His song lifts off with meditations on his Japanese-American grandfather and lands in the still-spreading wake of the bombing of Hiroshima. As if radiated, Shimoda’s paratactic, broken language grows deformed, gasps, and dies off in parts as he choreographs its function and dysfunction in place of obon’s mimetic dances, clappers, and costumes. Through the immense sensory intensity filling the void of the dead and the implied freedom of the living (They’re gone! Who were they?), the reader, figured as participant mourner, escapes grief. Formally escapist, the text resists its own structure and author. Italic text fragments, like ghosts attendant to Shimoda’s ceremony, introduce and interrupt the “principal” voice throughout the book. Preceding even the title, the first italics (spoken by Grandfather?), root the text in “a calm at the center of the formal world,” as if the dead organize and sooth the distress of the living. Out of this fiery calm, Shimoda chases the ashy absence of ancestors into the elsewheres of his own lyric world. Our speaker bounds through “August Gate,” the first main section, as self-declared “dandier,” his “ancestors hungering at the screen.” Its form echoes the poly-vocalism inherent in knowing you descend from others, the left-hand pages hosting a bi-directional, two-column poem: 

       

             how many people will I have to eat 

                                                                                                        slain in the flood 

             through in order to find you 

 

whose lines piece together non-syntactically like a dismembered body. A parallel poem cascades down the recto pages until the end when the left- and right-hand texts intermingle on a single page. (Think of Po/Pound’s “my dust mingled with yours.”) Hunger and consumption switchback as motifs throughout O Bon. The cannibalistic lyric “I” assumes “the Corpse Eater” as persona and subject in the second section. These poems’ scattered form, like ash itself, darts across the page. Any words hoping to marry meaning “elop[e] / in fallout / between tree between tree.” Shimoda’s language bears nuclear waste as cancerous repetition. The poems swell with intensity, “And where is the grief and where the grief finger /and where the grief dowser,” mounting toward a highly satisfying and intimate address of an absent “you.” “I flay the form for your return,” says the speaker, pointing the reader to his heuristic flair. However, the fleshy returns (“bright, moistened / lips, chest / blazonic / billowing on a limb”) only disturbingly recall the deceased. Failing reunion, the speaker risks admitting his own inner violence: “I have gone / to where you lost yourself/in vowing to kill the enemy.” This humble embodiment of others’ misdeeds stirs pathos more readily than Shimoda’s writing on writing (“solitude embraces me / through pre-descendent days and let us / slip into words”) or his long, explanatory epilogue. Despite the interrupting voice of this meta-griever, the poems easily allow a cathartic “flay[ing]” or “slip[page]” of American war guilt. Honing his strongest motifs—intersections of body, landscape, and language—the third section, “Inland Sea,” takes Hiroshima seductively into the speaker’s mouth, as Shimoda writes, “Grow open my mouth / / that I speak as / a sea forms.” In this radioactive context, the command enacts Shimoda’s keen conflation of ecological and human tragedy and the corresponding healing potential of art. What has particularized under the impact of an atomic bomb the poet artfully collects and re-disperses, “slip[ping] into atomy,” bearing fruit via repetition and pattern. A grotesque beauty arises in the poet-scavenger’s tight economy: “The tastelessness of flesh / upon a ravaged tongue the taste / of flesh to an eroding brain / buds on a ravaged tongue.” This budding up out of erosion catalyzes the final section, “Bon Odori,” or obon dancing. While at times the diction may seem as overwrought as ritualistic fanfare (“vacuities in pulp” or “catafalque in fog”), Shimoda’s rendering of the absent dead’s double-missed-ness wittily enables the living to step freely, to dance unwatched. As dancers/speakers/readers, we transgress many lines—Japanese/American, loyal/spy, toxic/clean, dead/alive, and so on. Inseparable from what’s here and what’s gone, we emerge beyond ourselves, “Uranium through each bud // … Still run[ning] with whose hands open.” 

 

 

 

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