CUTBANK REVIEWS: O Bon by Brandon Shimoda

O Bonby Brandon Shimoda Litmus Press, 2011

Review by Sara Renee Marshall

Here, fox gowns alight and haunt the hillside. A spinneret lets a waterfall of web. The night singer dances spirits awake through Bon Odori. The distance between a mother’s recollection of her son and wagtails rising on a wisp is nothing, is air, is the mind wafting or itself downwind of “incontinent grief” in “memory the startled forest.” Myth becomes the sleepless life of the living. Within this book, history laces together with dreams of history, life with projected lives, death with what happens after, sensory perception with extra-sense. When I think of this book, more questions unfold than answers. What is correspondence and where does it happen? Who and what is living? When do we dream and how is the dream not real? The dream is real, or should I say I believe in everything in this book.

I first spoke with Brandon Shimoda on a patio in the heat of summer, where, with two other friends, we swapped anecdotes and stories of our grandparents for hours. My great-grandfather, Robert Roblek, came from Slovenia to southern Colorado in his youth, around the turn of the 20th century. Brandon’s grandfather, Midori Shimoda, was born in Hiroshima and came to the U.S. at age 9 in 1919. I already knew from Brandon’s first two books, and confirmed in real life, that Brandon’s engagement with his grandfather’s history was not a mere curiosity but a lifestyle—an ongoing excavation, a way to visit and be visited.

It’s no secret that O Bon considers Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and their wakes, even as they apply to the memory of Brandon’s family. If I treated this book’s language apart from its interests, my thinking would be divorced from its pulse. I cannot write about this book without addressing who wrote it, where he might be in it, wondering what he wants, and how he uses his vision to communicate that. Put simply, he indicates his placement inside the book, and I won’t pretend to sidestep him. So, for better or worse, I can’t review this book. I can read it over and over, and I can write about it from within my limited sight.

While I lived in Japan part of 2006 and 2007, it never occurred to me until reading this book how Obon (the eponymous annual Japanese festival that invites and celebrates ancestors) must have been infused with unthinkable trauma, sobriety and sadness after the bombs. What is it to invite the haunting of spirits whose lives were lost in one of the most unfathomable, unprecedented assertions of violence in modern history? And then what is it for Brandon to plumb the intersection of personal and international record, but also of gruesome inhumanity and celebration? I can’t answer that, but I can say this book sticks to one’s skin and should not be read at night. I can say that on a couch in Tucson, Arizona I put my bookmark in it to save my place while I cried or took pause from “the canopy of ligament sound.”

When I press myself to describe Brandon’s third collection, O Bon, I feel the temptation to call its poems something like “meditations” or “reverie” on “grief” or “loss,” words I’m sure have been used to describe the work before. But those feel like ways to plug in romance where it has only a small part. Nor is this book just a tribute, in spite of its concentration on his grandfather’s life and his ancestors’ lives. So much earnestness and desire and steadfastness buoy up in this book that it feels more like part of a pursuit, or as Brandon writes, “courting” or “rites,” and then an ode borne out, even in its resolve to concentrate on the most sublime horror. In many places in this book, he writes to approach and approximate what was, in essence, unspeakable: “without war inherent in the vein / fluttering the eyelid after death / vision closes on non semantic light.” I think immediately of Inger Christensen’s alphabet, wherein she writes, “there is no more to / say.” She suggests that the explicit goal of large-scale weaponry is to obliterate, to end, to cause an effect so devastating that it inspires the apex of awe and fear, confounding response. Then, like Christensen’s book, O Bon determines to speak something of what can be relayed, or really, what fear and love oblige one to rebuild directly out of the ruin.

We, the readers, guess Brandon is in Japan, Montana, in a river, in an aftermath, in books, in the company of ghosts, deftly traveling inside and pursuing the dream, nightmare, and mind; he’s in the “misshapen where”: a no-place that is the curdling present or recollection of ruins. Even when his attention focuses on the grotesque, Brandon stuns so thoroughly with his diction, rhythms and music that, with distance, my memory glosses the book’s intensity. An example: “Streamers screwing eyes / the color and slender of thought moving slow / Pink meat of a lily dripping its clarion.” As such, the book asks you to slow down, to come closer, and then closer still.

Like some sort of private adage, a voice says “no / recitation / no remnant,” and so casts his duty outward—to the world of ghosts among whom he moves, to the honoring of those speaking within him and without. There is gravity to this writing; much has been dragged through the past into the present continuous, pressured, like the sublimated lives it describes, with the threat of vaporizing:

the people diminish the people are diminishing

In Brandon’s notes at the end of O Bon, he says, “…it feels more truly that ancestral spirits do not come from an ecstatic station beyond this world, but from one pulsating within it.” And in order to commune with those wavelengths, Brandon puts himself in every site—celebratory, traumatic, literary or memorial—where he can get to know that vibration. This work translates the transmissions of a dutiful receiver. But as he also writes, it intones with such keen attention to surfaces, but also to untangling the understory. Its voice bears evidence of the listener’s permeable ear and eye. He allows us entry to the conjoined space of mourning and celebration, life and its view through screens into other modes of life, both inside and outside language.

At the beginning of “August Gate,” Midori speaks: “Wake me from sleep / not a ghost but a man of ash without speech / I am ordered.” And with this invitation from his beloved ancestor, a call is spelled out to a living scribe: to access a sense of the dead. Brandon’s speaker is a supersensory trafficker of that other world. His communication begins when “The sky lowers its tenants / to the syllabarium,” or when the ancestors descend into language as translated experientially, lyrically into the poem. In this moment of invocation, Brandon asks after perhaps the intersection of himself and his grandfather at once: “Where are you in the characters.” He suggests the viscosity of voices and memories through which he wades, and moreover, the inherent confusion of language as an identity-maker, particularly while getting one’s bearings in a culture obfuscated by a foreign sign system.

With startling tenderness and music, he writes, “Come back in / I get so lonely in the den / I keep my hands to my own.” This voice doesn’t just desire to listen to ghosts, but to touch them, to wear them, to see from behind their eyes. Betraying an appropriate humility, he hopes for contact, real contact. And then he wants a sign: “Illumine the eyes / if you want me to die / more expediently.” Would he be welcome should he pass through whatever diaphanous veil divides him from these others? He begs to know “am I doing right,” his life itself a form for devotion to other lives.

The dead require more than an ear to listen. He seeks and finds new modes of communication, “Touching ruins / an attentive hand.” The whole body is a net registering reverberations, an enlistee “to follow not language.” But touching the ruin, traveling into the haunting knowingly hunts truth, which is awful in the truest sense of that word. In the imagined time before a great loss, a poem, “Irradiant,” augurs, “In one week from now / you will be seen anew / though the light will catch / you incorrectly.” Presumably Brandon imagines the after-image of bodies captured in radiation’s bulb and transposed onto the earth in the moment preceding sublimation. In the next poem, he writes, “I slip into atomy,” the speaker breaking his own atomic bonds to travel alongside the family that emerges:

my family walked into the river uneven curtain stretched from the wood—

feet swelling with dead weight splintered lamps

I can’t help but think of the glowing lanterns placed in rivers during Obon to light the path of the dead. Here, the enjambed “the river uneven / curtain” multiplies meaning and impact. He offers the possibility that both the family and the river are imbalanced. The river as an “uneven / curtain” gives the eye in the poem a tilted phenomenological vantage point, but also suggests the water is a portal through the veil of life and death. In this case, the dead return not redeemed, not as apparitional gusts of cold but as bodies wearing the facts of their alarming passing: “lips varicose,” “ash in the folds of their knuckles,” “lashes coil / round eyeless veins.” And then their visitor’s equally unsettled response:

where are their heads what may I rest my head my hands upon of them

His form and syntax embody the unfixed mind reckoning with bodies warped into something unrecognizable, something that confounds the satisfaction of a human connection with them. Further, his wobbling syntax seems to wonder—now that he slipped into their mode—is he too disassembled, disassembling? This uneasiness communicates the speaker’s degree of empathy. If there is a self, it’s found by being unbridled inside the multiplicity of its relation to family. Their lives, their deaths inscribe themselves into his present.

I wonder if Brandon gives a body to that empathy in one of this book’s most memorable devices: syntactic slipping. Frequently one word or phrase acts as a linchpin, drawing together and fueling two separate clauses. An example:

waists we cut

an ogreish smirk into a field of pallid lanterns

As if the language wasn’t curious and alive enough to marvel at, this move creates dynamism, both forward and backward. It facilitates a ghostly transition between two actions. The melding calls the subject into question. Is it the same “we” cutting waists and fields? Who is the “we,”—we the family, the corpses migrating? The Japanese? The Americans? Stored inside this difference is the confusion of creating an ethics. Consider another example in which the slip suggests a fusion of identities and trajectories, or really, a baseline for a social ethics:

every surface is a mirror I see my family in

though I never learned any of their names for fear they would have changed my course

my shadow wake the disembodied

In this case, the change of “my shadow / my course” is contingent upon “they,” and waking the disembodied is contingent upon “my course / my shadow.” Causality moves in two directions, again, with osmotic pressure that asks the reader to look in both directions at once. In this way, Brandon’s book recalls H.D.’s Trilogy: “but gods always face two-ways.” Two ways can mean backward and forward in time, delving into the subconscious and simultaneously absorbing the external, or toward the self and the other/family at once.

In the final section the question “why is mourning countermanded” is posed without offering what countermands mourning. Is it the opposing and inauthentic demand of celebrating? Is it fear? Sublime awe? Does the present cut in to remind the mourner of futility? I don’t know. I don’t know if Brandon’s book is a companion in sorrow or a salve. Either way, over and over, I’m rent by the same zealous tone of its last lines:

Before I am taken by the light I climb on the nightstand, singing


Brandon Shimoda is the author of four books, most recently O Bon (Litmus Press, 2011) and Portuguese (Tin House & Octopus Books, 2013), as well as numerous limited editions of collaborations, drawings, writings, and songs. He is working on a documentary book (re: wartime internment, glaciology, hell, picture brides, pictorial photography, dementia, the desert, etc.), and is co-editing, with poet Thom Donovan, a retrospective collection of writings by Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan (forthcoming from Nightboat Books). Born in California, he has lived most recently in Maine, Taiwan, Arizona, and here.

Sara Renee Marshall grew up in the Southwest. She is an editor for The Volta and Noemi Press. Recent poems can be found in places like OmniVerse, Poor Claudia's Crush, CutBank, SpringGun, Octopus and Colorado Review. Her chapbook, AFFECTIONATELY WE CALL THIS THE HOUSE, is forthcoming from Brave Men Press. Sara lives and writes in Denver, Colorado.