During an interview from the afterlife, Jack Spicer tells Hoa Nguyen that in making a poem, “you start with a syllable machine and see what ghosts you catch.” Similarly spirited, Caroline Bergvall’s Alisoun Sings channels a polyphonous “voice-cluster” of pop stars and feminist icons of art and literature, all centered around Alisoun, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.
The title of Don Mee Choi’s new pamphlet, Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial mode, contains a “=” mark, a symbol that is not written language and yet conveys a recognizable meaning. The equal sign establishes equivalency: the “=” holds a mirror to the first clause, showing a second clause that’s not an exact replica, yet is in some ways a reflection. The “=” achieves what Choi approaches in her pamphlet: translation as a twinning language. As Choi writes on the first page of her pamphlet, “I come from such twoness.
Reading Brandon Shimoda’s enigmatic and haunting The Desert, one wonders about the status of the desert and the fate of place after its replacement by landscape and the “inner man.” Written between 2011 and 2014 in Tucson, Arizona, with poems set in the American desert as well as in Japan, The Desert is less a landscape or “transcendental field” than the posthistorical (non)place that follows human violence.
What is the poetry of the desert, at once a place and placelessness itself? In 1980 the critic Karatani Kōjin published Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, where he theorized the distinction between place and landscape as a historical phenomenon.
I thought of these mythic depictions of the American West as I read Brandon Shimoda’s The Desert, not because Shimoda repeats their clichés but rather because his book so powerfully unearths the violence and oppression they obscure. Shimoda reveals another American desert, one that has, of course, been there all along (or at least since Europeans arrived on the scene). It is the shadow side of the myths of freedom, emptiness, and speed.
We don’t often think of deserts as confining. In the Western imaginary, at least, the mystique of the desert is that of unboundedness, escape, freedom, and authenticity. The American desert — in this sense more a generic placeholder than a specific geography — has served as a backdrop for the continual staging of these cultural myths.
In many ways, the structure of this poetry is parabolic. Points of reference are plotted along a curve that eventually returns to the same site of origin — the dockfield — before continuing onward. This is reflected in the release and retraction of words and images within parts of lines as well as in the broader sweep and curve of deep, transhuman time to which the text aspires.
Carol Watts’s Dockfield opens with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson — “Like Rain it sounded till it curved.” This attention to sound and structure also informs the opening lines of the first poem: