Brandon Shimoda's 'The Desert'

Photo of the Painted Desert by W. Bulach, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Desert

The Desert

Brandon Shimoda

The Song Cave 2018, 192 pages, $17.95 ISBN 978-0998829067

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. He argued that landscape had evolved out of European principles of perspective, revolving around what Usami Keiji called “position,” or “the totality of what can be apprehended by a single person with a fixed point of vision.”[1] As the inversion of perspective, landscape was the result of the conceptualization of an “inner self.”[2] Place, by contrast, was a kind of transcendental field that had existed prior to the discovery of landscape. Irreducible to the individual’s perspective, it was not the opposite, and thus the result, of an intense interiority, but rather that which had not been interiorized at all.

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.”[3] Written between 2011 and 2014 in Tucson, Arizona, The Desert is less a landscape or “transcendental field” than the posthistorical (non)place that follows human violence. Early on in the collection, which follows Shimoda’s O Bon (2011) and Evening Oracle (2015), the poet writes:

There has to be a landscape
For wandering in place
For the nomad never leaves
The confines of the mind[4]

“There has to be a landscape” belies what the desert — and The Desert — is. If landscapes are created out of fixed perspectives, the desert is the disorienting terrain of endless but obsessive wandering. If home is where we traditionally stabilize and ground our views, the desert is where we find our views uprooted and transformed into visions bordering on ecstatic hallucination. The desert, when it recognizes any individuals at all, speaks to those visitors and passersby who, in their trial, exile, or journey, fail to leave and become part of the earth itself:

I am looking at a man
Walking across the street
Beneath the sky
Into a tree (15)

In Shimoda’s collection, men can become trees, just as the “Mushrooms / Or rather women / Wearing mushrooms” blur their own identities (10). A horse, early on in the book, falls into a hole, as if becoming a part of the earth itself. A woman later “rides a horse into the desert” so that she might “BE the desert, FROM the desert / As if she lives there, and has always” (24). The union of the desert and those who dwell there produces a powerful language of bondage, but the union is far from untainted:

Any margin of scenery in the future              Was built by Japanese Americans
Yamauchi, Norikane, Yoshida, Takeuchi, Yoshikawa,
Taguma, Kuromiya, Hoshizaki, Yenokida, Hirabayashi
Hopi, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mexican Americans, African Americans,
Dissidents, conscientious objectors (29)

The various prison labor and Japanese internment camps created during the midcentury were meant to be “temporary dwellings” (28), but they leave a permanent dispossession that forms the basis of Shimoda’s revelations and immersion into the desert. Personal history, always the ghost of written history, both shapes and is shaped by the imagination, constructed out of the gaps and erasures of what we are told. Without an understanding of this, a description of the land and sea morphing with people might be mistaken as beauty, a Romanic innocence, or, worse-yet, a cowboy’s exotic fantasy. Instead, there is something horrific about a nationalist vision that once sought to turn people into the landscape itself. In one passage, the language is so unflinching that, at first, we are not sure whether we are experiencing the figuration of nature, a description so literal it becomes abstract, or something more uncanny. Shimoda writes:

Elderly women with white heads and squirrelfish bosom
Elderly men with pink squirrelfish heads
Guns with pink heads

Animals know why the sky turns green
They hear a stampede, manure strafing
Purple desert before rain
After the fount of corpses
Humps up in the river
Boats untied, horses drowning (43)

Much of Shimoda’s writing reads archetypally. The lack of proper names and articles contributes to an almost mythopoetic language. Symbols seem to tell the metamorphosis of brides, animals, and plants. When names are used, they appear less referential than invocational. Yet, as it turns out, the confusion of the human image with landscape follows the earlier step of transforming humans into animals. What seems Ovidian or allegorical is in fact saturated with modern, political catastrophe:

Fish are becoming women
In Japan
Killing whales
Japan’s education system teaches children
It is OK to kill whales (34)

In another scene, the poet uses the metaphor of war to describe children who are met with “Snapping turtles / like helmets.” Shimoda writes:

Turtles deep
deep deep
in the ditches, slowly rose      and snapped at the children
children were grabbed, pulled in, became turtles (142)

So stark and otherworldly is Shimoda’s language that one cannot help but think it returns from somewhere few individuals have ever reached. The Desert, with its characteristic ellipses and strikethroughs, with its ability to make even a chocolate chip cookie a relic of power, is the most physical yet gone book I have read in years. It is also buried in one of the desert’s many paradoxes: that a desert, which is inhospitable to human life, is in some ways also foreign to the idea of human death. Its otherness applies to both. As a result, the desert provides a new perspective on the processes of human living and dying. As that which is endlessly inbetween, the desert loses track of temporal directionality and is both adorned and ridden with traces of waste. If waste can be said to live at all, it lives only because it comes after death. Seen as a fragment, it refers to the disembodiment of a lost whole (and the frightening horrors that can emerge from trying to “re-embody” these parts). Seen as excess, it survives as a kind of sacredness, representing what is pure and has not been consumed.

For Karatani Kōjin, “place” represented a field of concepts where an object represented its own ideal, while a “landscape” represented the modern individual who gazed upon it. The desert in Shimoda’s book falls into neither aesthetic category, for there is nothing to be transcended and there is no safe distance between the subject and the desert that consumes and regurgitates it. (Naturally, there is no sublime here either.) Broken up into seven sections, Shimoda’s book knows that the history of the desert is also the history of trying to navigate what exists below and above the land: a blinding and eroding sunlight which is almost too unbearable to face. In one of the most beautiful images in The Desert, what emerges from the ground is different from what one expects:

Day One in the
desert, I brought a book
to the park
and sat in the grass

came out of the earth (138)

Moments like these speak to a quiet that is still possible when silence doesn’t overwhelm the subject’s world. Elsewhere, death and suffering are built into the desert, not as a natural fact, but as a human and historical one. Describing the prisoners in labor camps, Shimoda writes that they

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      river evaporated. the prisoners disintegrated (141)

The poetry of the desert is one that risks its own form to speak to the formlessness of a terrain and its brutal history. At a time when so much rhetoric is mistaken for poetry — and when the majority of poems are seen using rather than inventing language — Shimoda’s The Desert seems to defy premade categories to present the desert in something verging on an originary language. There is great trust on the part of the poet, trust that the reader will follow to the limit of what is tangible, rational, and legible on the page. With shifting perspectives, many of which have been lost to history, the desert resembles neither place nor landscape, but rather their aftermath: the (non)place in which seeking continues, long after it was meant to end. 

1. Karatani Kōjin, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, trans. Brett de Bary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 20.

2. Kōjin, 40.

3. Kōjin, 25.

4. Brandon Shimoda, The Desert (New York: The Song Cave, 2018), 7.