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.