The Desert by Brandon Shimoda (The Song Cave, 2018)
WE START ALL OVER, WHEN
WE ALL START OVER, become
As when we were shot
Through anesthetic light
And brought to life
Within the sentence of existence
(from “Transit Center”)
I’ve been thinking of when I was in my early teens, budding with a sense of places other than my own. My mother, sister and I took a trip from our small town in rural Maine to Las Vegas. It was where my half brother and his mother (my father’s first wife, so technically my stepmother) lived. I have many memories of that trip, my first trip to the desert. They are swirling dreams of half-images and sparsely-detailed landscapes filling distinct events and moments, incredible spotlights of heat, burning feet walking across the blacktop, the aridity and that full, quiet brightness. Since that holiday, I have been connected with, contracted to, the desert. It calls me fully and regularly, like a drug or a community, whispers of my name, or someone else’s, spread out across a wind-like continuum on the edge of my consciousness. I have been to numerous deserts and other dry places. I have slept in them. I have walked through them. Driven. Hiked. Sweated out. Hallucinated. Challenged my own sense of reality. The ongoing relationship with them has been fortified with romantic cultural ideas of the place: the boundary before a (manifest) destiny; the lawless, free-spirited land of opportunity; the desolate sense of the ancient and barren and life-beyond-life-itself. Even now, recalling these desert frameworks and conditionings, I get the urge to drop everything and go. It is a good feeling. I hope for it to continue.
a larger purple, the most
sanitary I follow
I don’t remember
when I’m in it
It is happening
The Desert sits in front of me and it’s a large book. It takes up space. Brandon Shimoda has written a large book. It comes out of a lineage of desert writers. Poets. Essayists. Novelists. Many voices who have tried to grasp the ideas within an iconic, untouchable space. A space where immersion is forced. There is a binary of presence: you are within or you are out. There is before, during, and after, a narrative that is neither linear nor modular, but something more holistic, something more total, something that vibrates and stations within and beyond. I believe that The Desert, Shimoda’s work, a follow-up to his and others’ previous work, captures this sense of storytelling and world-telling. I believe it is work because it indicates a distinct, timely sense of effort in collecting, projecting, and residing within the writing of this space. I believe it is more than that too: it is a deeply personal book that throws the world about within its confines, its limitations, its own sense of knowing and unknowing. The Desert as I have read it maintains a sense of “the desert” as much as it feels like the waking life of Shimoda. A straightforward statement in general, and in the context of poetry, perhaps, but in some awing way there are the contractions of idealism and a precision of perfection here that is difficult to wrap my mind around. How does a book feel whole and complete, while retaining its otherness all the same? Is this merely a question of ignorance on the part of me, the reader, or is there something transmutable in the desert core, the same desert that leads to loss and death as it does to survival and humility? The Desert wraps the spectrum up nicely while, enduring the juxtapositions and serving as an excellent reading experience.
Black tarantulas. People sitting around a fire
Beneath enormous cottonwoods
The color of a Christian—pious, unresponsive
Faces in the smoke
(from “Blind Children”)
It is visceral: crackling echoes of swollen canyon and indomitable plains matched with acutely intimate campfires and vague splashes of humanity while housesitting. All is a morphic process here, and Shimoda, a literary seer or sage, whose voice stays present and distant (like the echo that careens around a corner or over and beyond a horizon), offers the thread. Seven sections of the book make up seven separate gazes towards the desert. As I mentioned, addressing them as a linear causality is not rewarding, and might not even be effective. Instead, it is calming to note that there are sections just as there are mountains: change over vast periods of time; growth and shrinking; movements in and out; relatively intact spaces of pattern and trend. The book is sequenced to lead the reader toward Shimoda’s desert by way of a daily, existential practice. He lived in Tucson from 2011-2014. He wrote. That is the setup. That is the otherworldly sense of space and time. What else do you need to know? When you, like anyone else, visits the desert, what do you need to know? Much of the pleasure and pain of the landscape, those qualities that make it knowable, that make it attractive and repulsive and, essentially, unforgettable, are intrinsically personal. Shimoda’s notes, his explorations, his positives and negatives, provide a sense of bearing, a sense of longing, and a sense of pacing. Time is a very real, and remarkable tool to be used and be applied in The Desert but only by alternatively going forward, backward, and through the text in multiple, fragmented visitations have I found “Time” to be everything I wanted, everything that completed the experience. Like the vastness of the desert in its many variable forms, Shimoda’s work challenges the reader in its sense of approachability, in its sense of wander, and the resulting emotional complexity and confusion.
I looked at everyone
I wanted everyone
To be where they were
(from “Evening Oracle” in “Bride”)
Perhaps I have found The Desert (as a symbol, as a form, as a specific type of literary process) to be the ideal container for Shimoda’s translucent, migratory poetry. A large statement, but one I can’t help but ponder. The cause and effect between Shimoda’s voiced (penned) experience balances with the dynamic totality of the subject matter. All the searing, all of the heat, all the illumination flows volcanically (liquidous and hellishly solidified one and the same) into a state of permanence that renders each poem, each story or moment, into a chiseled, pressured appearance. Pressured into being, into reliance, into expectation, while marvelously counter to the instability of societal space and time. Moments of the poet’s life that lead to insight are to be trusted, taken with confidence and even, remarkably, with joy. The book is not a book of joy in a direct sense, but the spirit contained within the book, that inextricable sense of freedom and security, finds an outcry of joy and awe all the same. But the book is also larger than that, as it needs to be. Shimoda’s experiences, the spectra of them, contain scattered layers of wisdom as well: the result of the hallucinatory and the imagined, the explored of the available, the induction of the potential. The desert is a space of learning and knowing and so is The Desert.
cut rectangles in the floor dug holes in the dirt
to stay cool
in July folded their bodies
like paper fell asleep
in the holes rivers evaporated. The prisoners disintegrated
Not even their secrets
(from “Gila River”)
Th beginning of the book’s postscript reads: “The photography on the cover is of three Japanese Americans, taken during the Harvest Festival at the Tule Lake concentration camp, October 31, 1942. The photographer was Francis Stewart, on assignment for the War Relocation Authority [. . .] A segregation center opened within Tule Lake, July 15, 1943. The prison within the prison—with enhanced security, fortified fence, increased guard towards, 1000 military police—incarcerated individuals who were considered disloyal. Stewart took a number of photographs at Tule Lake that capture what I have written elsewhere as the perverse psychosis that is settler colonialism in the United States.” (177) The reality here, that part of The Desert is an examination of this history of internment/incarceration/antagonism within the more contemporary colonialism of and within the United States, is a reality that The Desert is a book actualizing much more than Shimoda’s daily logs, his written practice, his fueled language. It is the fuel itself: the histories of marginalization and oppression, the systemic imprisonment and prejudice, and the sense of other that has and continues to pervade an American expanse of freedom, symbolically and legally.
“Not sure why I keep prefacing every email with mention of the desert, though the affirmation feels necessary. This is where we are, this landscape which feels as congenital to our condition as it does alien. I still have little sense of what it is, what it does . . .” (91)
To examine Shimoda’s book is to get a sense that, as I mentioned above, there is much contradiction and counter between that open existence of the desert. To be free affords exploitation. To be open allows room for the most closed. The desert is a space of profound knowing and unknowing all the same. And it is a space where the bleakest and most hateful instances can find their own pocket to run dry and remain echoes of their former selves. And further, it is a landscape where that history, etched into the landscape, can also be approached. Is it because nothing much lasts for very long in the desert? Is it because of that harshness that we can identify and blink apart? Is history on an incessant, unbearable loop, or is it actually bearable, actually tolerable, pulsing along and compact enough to grasp? I find Shimoda’s interpretation, integration, and the resulting persistence through the realities of the desert, including but not limited to the tyranny of the prison camps of the desert (and beyond the desert) to be one of mature acceptance. That is not to say The Desert represents the desert (as symbol and as physical space) as easy and accommodating! But that is full and true and helpful as a mode to conduct explorations of and beyond the self, of and beyond the poetry, of and beyond the imprint of language in time (however Time may be formed and interpreted). I think on this book and imagine my own attraction to the deserts I’ve visited before and have yet to visit, and I wonder about their fullness and how they might help me rather than just blindly attract, and help others too, and where that lived experience can lead to new spaces of knowing, growth, and wisdom.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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