The carceral outside
A review of 'The Desert' by Brandon Shimoda
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. This American desert is the virgin wilderness, the frontier, Zion, a space of retreat and mystic communion, a symbol of unimpeded movement, possibility, and utopia from Francis Parkman to Charles Olson, John Van Dyke to John Ford, Zabriske Point to Dances with Wolves.
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. It is the desert of (at least) three “complex” histories: that of settler colonialist conquest and genocide, the military-industrial complex of weapons testing and secret Cold War installations, and the prison-industrial complex’s web of borders, surveillance, prisons, and concentration camps. Throughout The Desert, Shimoda subtly but forcefully layers these complexes into the sediment of everyday life in the Sonoran Desert city of Tucson. Shimoda’s desert is a ghost world in a dual sense: it is, as he writes, “always good about erasing a good deal of the rest of the world”; and, at the same time, this very erasure, the desert’s apparent emptiness, allows it to become “the landscape of coordinated disappearance” (92). In the midst of the desert’s open space, “where the river splits, the prison sits like a vibrating battery” (90).
The secret military topography of the American desert has been charted, with slightly different emphasis, by writers and artists like Rebecca Solnit in Savage Dreams (University of California Press, 2000), Trevor Paglen in Blank Spots on the Map (Dutton, 2009), and Jena Osman in The Network (FENCE Books, 2010, specifically in the section titled “Mercury Rising”), to name just a few prominent examples. Over the past few decades, however, this Cold War–era (and War on Terror–era) image of the militarized desert has been superseded by the militarized desert of the borderlands. An ongoing migrant crisis, largely created by the United States’ policies in Central America, neoliberal trade agreements with Mexico, and despotic, nativist immigration laws, has turned the US-Mexico border into a carceral state of walls, surveillance, heavily armed border patrol, and concentration camps in which families are separated and people imprisoned indefinitely in inhumane conditions.
The Desert adds yet another layer to this history, one that is too-little noted in the context of the American West: the “relocation” and incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. So while Shimoda does write beautifully at times about the desert in terms of its silence and spaciousness, “The sense of space, or space’s sense, how things alternate dimensions upon the eye” (79), this peaceful view of the desert is complicated by a pervasive awareness of that which is purported to be in the past, or to never have occurred at all: violence, dispossession, and trauma. If the desert is silent it is also silencing.
The book registers the sense that the these histories “HAVE NOT STOPPED / ARE NOT HISTORIES” (92) through a range of forms, including minimalist lyrics and two extended serial poems that are bisected by a diary-like collection of incredible prose excerpts, by turns lucid and phantasmagoric, compiled from emails the author sent to friends and fellow poets over the course of three years spent in Tucson. Across all of these modes, Shimoda demonstrates a profound ability to present haunted, surreal moments of tragedy large and small. His poetry and prose is charged with a remarkable power of distillation that turns the ordinary hallucinatory. Notably for a book set in the desert, it is often focused on city life. Not urban life, exactly, but rather life in the populated American West — a spaced-out suburban or exurban landscape traversed by dry riverbeds and abandoned lots. In this environment, the quotidian discloses a slow-burning absurdity. Shimoda’s speaker seems to drift through the city and its fringes, both geographical and societal, often interacting with homeless people and a range of humans living on the edge of mainstream society. An unassuming yet incisive witness to ephemeral moments of precarious everyday life, the poet watches as a man “presses his forehead into the trunk of the tree / Lifts off the ground, tries not to be awkward” (15); a woman paints atop a horse in the middle of a river (24); a series of strangers misread the proper noun “Taiwan” on the speaker’s hat as, respectively, Tijuana, Hawaii, and Tai-wow (53); the ruins of a prison labor camp hide among desert mountains (29–30). If the space of the desert is supposed to signal emptiness and pure potentiality, Shimoda digs beneath this mystique to expose its underside. In the book’s floating, ghostly tableaus, the desert (and the desert city) is both “far from action” and, paradoxically, the location “where arms are, where / The road goes Labor was imposed was secret” (29).
In his 1986 book America, Jean Baudrillard famously argues that the American desert is both empty and always already cinematic. In this, Baudrillard provides an instructive contrast to Shimoda — or, more precisely, Shimoda’s desert fills in some of the gaps in Baudrillard’s. For Baudrillard, “American culture is heir to the deserts” because “they denote the emptiness, the radical nudity that is the background to every human institution.” The stark topography of the desert suggests not only the fundamentally ascetic or puritan ethos of American culture, but also a vision of radical surface, the flatness of signs. Deserts instantiate his well-known figure of the simulacrum, a copy without an original, due to their “desertification of signs and men [sic] … the mental frontier where the projects of civilization run into the ground.” In terms of geology, the desert allows one to actually “relive … the spectrum of inhuman metamorphoses that preceded us, our successive historical forms: the mineral, the organic, salt desert, sand dunes, rock, ore, light, heat, everything the earth has been, all the inhuman forms it has been through, gathered together in a single anthologizing vision.” This vision of deep time is a reminder that all the products of human civilization are ephemeral and, indeed, contingent. Yet in terms of semiotics, the American desert is a simulacrum because, in Baudrillard’s view, it is basically a giant movie set. He writes, “It is not the least of America’s charms that even outside the movie theaters the whole country is cinematic. The desert you pass through is like the set of a Western, the city a screen of signs and formulas.” Even “all this mysterious geology is … a scenario” for Baudrillard. Moreover, “It is useless to seek to strip the desert of its cinematic aspects in order to restore its original essence; those features are thoroughly superimposed upon it and will not go away. The cinema has absorbed everything — Indians, mesas, canyons, skies.”
Perhaps. Yet Baudrillard, for all his deconstructive reading of the desert as inseparable from its cinematic representations, reproduces the very erasures (of the actual terrain, of Native Americans, of violence) committed and enforced by settler colonialism. In contrast, Shimoda complicates this emphasis on artifice and emptiness, without succumbing to the allure of essence or origin. To juxtapose Baudrillard and Shimoda in this way is not at all to reduce the latter’s multifaceted poetry to an abstract theoretical concern. It is, rather, to insist that the work stages a curious spatial conundrum that I have not seen elsewhere: namely, that the supposedly “wide-open” or “empty” geography of the desert makes a perfect hiding place for the carceral machinations of the state. Shimoda, in other words, finds incarceration in the desert.
The ever-present specter of incarceration takes many forms in The Desert. There are a number of poems titled “Incarceration” that hover around the aforementioned “vibrating battery” of a prison the speaker repeatedly walks/bikes past throughout the book, but the first hint of a carceral theme comes in a kind of introductory riddle or fable. After an inscription that situates the book and its writing in “Tucson, Arizona / 2011–2014,” the first text we encounter is a one-page story with elements of murder, illness, and war. “Riding in a van through the desert,” the speaker relates, “a former kindergarten teacher told us a story about a Pakistani woman who was murdered in East Tucson” (1). The woman’s husband, who “was a doctor in Pakistan, but took a job in Tucson as a telemarketer,” is initially suspected of committing the murder; however, it was the couple’s son, “mentally ill” and newly released from being institutionalized, who killed his mother while his two sisters “were in the other room.” As the teacher was telling this story, the van “passed a tree farm,” an anomalous sight in the desert, in whose “long, diminishing rows” the speaker “envisioned fetuses, pendant-like, enclosed in the womb of the trees. I thought of the daughters — were they twins? Did they hear their mother being stabbed? What were they doing in the other room?” (1, italics in original). This stark, stunning opening establishes a tension between close, confined spaces and the supposedly “open” outside that envelops them. The van, the house-as-crime-scene, the mental hospital, the other room (injected here with an almost Lynchian charge of otherworldly power), the rows of trees, the fruits transformed into fetuses; all of these enclosed and claustrophobic spaces reflect each other and put into play, from the very outset of the project, a vision of the desert as a site not of surface and speed, but rather one of restricted movement and hidden trauma.
As if in an unlikely selva oscura — a dark forest in the midst of a desert — Shimoda begins in medias res with this disturbing recitation. Not least among Shimoda’s many powers as a writer is his ability to suspend readers — much as his speaker often seems suspended or floating — amidst a complex of suggestive but irresolvable fragments. For instance, having finished her account of extreme violence, the kindergarten teacher nonchalantly explains that she has recently retired and is headed to Hawaii to visit family living near Pearl Harbor. In the final sentence of the passage, the speaker asks the teacher what Pearl Harbor is like, and she responds, “There’s still oil in the water” (1, italics in original). With this seeming non sequitur, Shimoda leaves us lingering amongst multiple juxtapositions: of domestic violence and anti-immigrant prejudice, the environmentally toxic and psychologically traumatic traces of war, the industrial cultivation of the desert, and the history of US colonial occupation in Hawaii.
There is indeed a direct line that leads from this initial allusion to Pearl Harbor back to the desert, as these historical and carceral threads combine in the US government’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans. On February 19, 1942, just over two months after Imperial Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the military to establish exclusion zones along the Pacific coast. In short order, at least 120,000 Japanese Americans residing within these zones on the West Coast were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in concentration camps — so-called “war relocation” or “internment” camps. The majority of these camps were in the interior West, often in remote, arid locations, many on Native American reservations. While, as Shimoda reminds us in an afterword, “there were, in addition to the main camps, many dozens of incarceration sites … stretching from Hawaii to Ellis Island, i.e. the entire United States” (177), in this act of mass incarceration, the desert itself — through its remoteness and hostile climate — served as a kind of geographic prison cell for America’s unwanted subjects. In this geographic sense, these camps were a precursor of US policy along the southern border with Mexico, which, at least since “Operation Gatekeeper” in the mid-1990s, has actively used the desert to punish and deter immigration. Under the auspices of the Clinton administration, “Gatekeeper” began a more aggressive enforcement of anti-immigration laws at major crossing points such as San Ysidro in California, creating, by design, a spike in migrants dying, lost and dehydrated, while attempting to cross remote stretches of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. In both the “war relocation” camps and the imposition of borders, the geography of the desert is itself weaponized, made to aid a violent carceral agenda.
The Desert foregrounds the entanglement of these histories, beginning with the unsettling photograph on the book’s front cover. From behind the cover’s tan, desert-like filter, three figures peer down in the direction of a camera that is seemingly situated at their feet. Their faces are obscured by masks; two women in comical Okame masks flank a central figure disguised as a kind of Tengu, or demigod. In the afterword, Shimoda writes that the photo “was taken during the Harvest Festival at the Tule Lake concentration camp” (177), located in the high desert of northeastern California, on October 31, 1942. In an essay on an exhibition of War Relocation Authority (WRA) photographs (a portion of which is quoted in the same afterword), Shimoda asserts that such photos demonstrate “the perverse psychosis that is settler colonialism in the United States.” In the essay, Shimoda describes another photograph taken at Tule Lake. This photograph, captioned “Harvest Day,” is a shot of a parade. In the right half of the picture, a husband and wife march arm in arm, both wearing blackface. “The appearance,” Shimoda writes, “of a young Nikkei couple in blackface in a U.S. concentration camp on land that had, until the late 1800s, been inhabited for thousands of years by the Modoc people, articulates the dynamic in which non-white people (native, alien, slave) are manipulated as the subjects and counter-subjects of a chronic performance” (177). The “perverse psychosis” that erases even as it stages colonial violence, a “[masquerade] of jubilation under duress,” as Shimoda also calls it, presents an obvious instance of simulacra — endless copies without originals. But the apparent correspondence to Baudrillard, however, points once again to a significant difference: Baudrillard’s theorization of the desert-as-simulacrum excludes the possibility of violence and trauma. In America, Baudrillard briefly acknowledges the “extermination” of Native Americans but then quickly pivots to claim that the “pioneer” process that precipitated genocide “itself was overtaken fifty years later by the tracking shots of the cinema which speeded up the process even more, and, in a sense, put an end to the disappearance of the Indians by reviving them as extras.” One wonders what Baudrillard would make of the American desert’s current cinema of surveillance, replete with Border Patrol drones and massive detention facilities. In any case, what Baudrillard’s critique misses is the way these cinematic images perpetuate the same psychosis diagnosed by Shimoda. The resurrection of the Indians by myth-peddling Westerns is another instance of the “masquerade” or “chronic performance” staged to shore up Whiteness. However ironized and critical Baudrillard’s account of America might be at times, it’s clear that for him the desert exists, in a very real sense, outside of history.
Shimoda, in contrast, rejects any such ahistorical or Lazarus-like scenario. He forcefully contends, at the end of his essay on WRA photography, that any resurrection poses ethical questions precisely because it refuses to erase trauma: “When it comes to the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans, I am, despite the redress and reparations, and the various, unfolding forms of remembrance and memorialization, entirely unconvinced that there has been any resolution, or even such a possibility.” Instead, the existence of American concentration camps during WWII — and today — reveals “a history that has not passed (is not past),” and presents “the imperative to resurrect, against time, precisely those stories, precisely those meanings, newer and more instructive, precisely those lives, which are not at rest.” These comments echo two entries in the prose section of The Desert. In the first, the poet and his partner attend “a Yaqui Holy Week ceremony in which all the men wore hand-carved masks,” an image that, in an effect similar to the book’s layering of histories, “cast[s] … backwards and forwards (at once) into the marvel that is the HUMAN FACE, unmasked” (88). In the second, the designation of the desert as “the landscape of coordinated disappearances” opens onto Angela Davis’s assertion that “‘Nationalism always requires an enemy, whether inside or outside the nation”’ (92). Or, as Shimoda puts it in the poem “Holy Week,” “Masks remind us: independence is / To be mourned as much as celebrated” (13–14). The most salient aspect of the desert, for Shimoda, is the way its apparent openness and barrenness poses these questions of inside and outside, masking and erasure.
“Gila River,” a longer poem that is given its own section in The Desert, confronts the abiding presence of the World War II camps more directly than any other in the book, establishing a dynamic interaction between stretched and broken temporality in its first four lines:
The prisoners lived for many years —
Had children grandchildren, great-grandchildren
Burned very quietly
to ash (141)
The poem’s title refers to the Gila River concentration camp, which was located on the Gila River Indian Community in the desert southeast of Phoenix. The opening lines are, syntactically speaking, the beginning of a series that lists various strategies Japanese American prisoners devised to survive their ordeal: “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” (141). But as initially encountered, the lines enact a gap between the extension of time beyond incarceration, in which survivors cannot be reduced to the time they spent in the camps, and the suspension of time and memory at the moment of incarceration (if one can speak of a “moment” at which imprisonment begins). The enactment is accomplished visually: the first two lines extend across the page, reflecting the reach of life beyond incarceration; in stark contrast, the next two lines are spare and compressed, with “very quietly” floating off to the side of “Burned / to ash.” The sentence structure asks us to read this burning as one of the prisoners’ possible fates, although it also implies forced cultural erasure, the European concentration camps of WWII, and even the aftermath of the atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Shimoda writes elsewhere in the poem, “Prison / is prolongation,” but this stretched time, this dragging out of days, weeks, years, is also time erased, a non-time that does not — cannot — end.
The poem is the movement between these irreconcilable temporalities. Fragmented memories of former inmates emerge and quickly submerge as the speaker drifts amidst the remaining physical traces of the camp. The irregular spacing between words within the line creates not only a searching, hesitant manner of articulation but also literal blank spaces that paradoxically “narrate the silences” (144) that one cannot find words for. If time is both extended and indefinitely paused, geographical space is internalized: “without ending migration becomes internal / for those who do not leave / keep the memory leaving / de-located” (146). The line break allows for a reading in which “those who do not leave” are stuck with/in a memory that is always leaving but never quite gone, and are “leaving / de-located,” that is, unmoored by the impatient, impossible demands of assimilation. The precarious process of assimilation leaves the subject forever vulnerable to being, in Shimoda’s trenchant formulation, “incriminated / by the sadness / of someone else’s dream” (146).
Shimoda’s interest in the temporal dimension of trauma is not restricted to poems that directly address incarceration. In the prose section of the book, the poet notes that he has taken a job as a substitute instructor at a school for deaf and blind children. This occupation is reflected in a set of poems, each titled “Blind Children,” the culmination of which is a stunning poem demonstrating Shimoda’s remarkable powers. Its spare and compressed narrative recounts a car accident and its effects on an eleven-month-old child. It’s worth quoting a substantial portion from the middle of the poem in order to show how it manages to evoke trauma’s continuous present. The first thing the child, Armando, remembers is riding in the car with his father:
The second thing Armando remembers
Is his father resting his head against the window
He remembers his father resting
His head slowly
Against the window
Then his father’s head against the window
As if his father was falling
Asleep. Maybe that is what Armando thought (that his father had fallen asleep)
The car wasn’t moving (all around was not moving)
Armando’s eyes were open. It was the last time he could see
It was the last thing he saw
His father looking
Like he was falling
Asleep against the window
Armando was trapped
In his car seat for two days. His father, not moving, asleep
Did not wake up, no sound
Came out, he dissolved. Armando could not see the road
The sky, small brown stuffs
Sitting on top of tall greens
The sun was in the car. Armando’s skin was burning
The sun was not in the car. His skin was cool. His eyes were open
The whole time (burning, then cool)
When Armando closed his eyes, his eyes were open (37–38)
The poem builds through a set of declarative statements, mostly in the past tense, which reproduce at once the repetitive, elliptical nature of memory, and a child’s idiosyncratic syntax. There is almost the rhythmic gentleness of a lullaby, a certain delicacy in the telling. A dreamlike tone alternates with matter-of-fact statement. Phrases like “his father resting / his head slowly / against the window,” which repeat with slight variations and incremental shifts in lineation, are punctuated with odd descriptions such as “all around was not moving” or “The sky, small brown stuffs / Sitting on top of tall greens.” In the terms of narrative theory, the speaker/narrator of the poem seems to employ indirect discourse while also occasionally offering third-person commentary, e.g. “Maybe that is what Armando thought,” and straightforward narration, “Armando was trapped / in his car seat for two days.” The poem’s complex focalization renders the unresolved nature of trauma. This aspect of trauma is especially pointed here, as the traumatic event occurs at the very inception of memory. This tragic car trip is “the first thing Armando remembers” and, literally, “the last thing he saw.” Blinded in the accident, trapped in his car seat, “Armando could not see the window / Bend” when an uncle arrives at the scene and breaks the glass, finally freeing him from the car. But the ordeal has not ended, not only because of the (presumably) permanent condition of his blindness, but also because the memory is itself ongoing:
He cried for two days. The two days did not end
Every reversing shadow became, still is becoming
A shadow reversing, still coming
To shatter the window (38)
The poem’s repetitions and sonic structure circle around an erasure that lies at the heart of memory, an erasure (of light) that, paradoxically, keeps replaying, pulling the poem in its final lines into the present. This space that “still is becoming” is charted by the chiasmus “reversing shadow / shadow reversing” and the visual/aural residue of “shadow” in “shatter.” It’s a space that is also, at the same time, diminishing, as suggested by Shimoda’s tapering lines. The poem’s claustrophobic evocation of both the child’s confinement in the car and the turns and returns of memory — its (re)versing of trauma — is, in the end, enacted, as in “Gila River,” through lineation.
We find in this poem, as in the book as a whole, the conceits of clarity, vision, light, the sun — all typical in desert literature. Only they are inverted, turned inward. Closed is open and open, closed. The child is trapped in a car seat, inside a car, where the sun blinds as much as it illuminates. The clear sight lines of the desert become blind spots. This “reversing shadow” and “shadow reversing” adumbrates the carceral state Shimoda encounters elsewhere in the book. “Carceral” — from Latin carcer (jail, prison) and Proto-Indo-European sker, (to bend, turn, in the sense of an enclosure). Turning, versing, and reversing the time of the enclosure, the cinema of surveillance, Shimoda bends and shatters America’s transparent myths of freedom. This is urgent, necessary work. Because the trauma is still happening. As Shimoda puts it, “The continuum is ongoing; the target is the soul” (92).
8. For more on Operation Gatekeeper see Pedro Rios, “For 25 years, Operation Gatekeeper has made life worse for border communities,” The Washington Post, October 1, 2019.
9. Brandon Shimoda, “I Am an American: The Photographic Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration,” Hyperallergic, April 1, 2017.