Saturday, September 02, 2023

Brandon Shimoda, Hydra Medusa


            These questions come to mind as I contemplate the intransigent, intractable void that hovers over the ruins of Japanese American incarceration. One element forming the void is the murders of Japanese and Japanese American men inside, outside, and on the perimeters of WWII prisons and concentration camps, murders that exist on and resonate through the continuum of the murder of people of color by state operatives/law enforcement in the United States. The void (shadow) is earth, sky, everywhere in between.
            Kanesaburo Oshima was shot and killed by a guard in the prison camp in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Toshio Kobata and Hirota Isomura were shot and killed by a guard outside the prison camp in Lordsburg, New Mexico. James Ito and Katsuji James Kanegawa were shot and killed by military police in Manzanar. James Hatsuaki Wakasa was shot and killed by a guard in Topaz. Shoichi James Okamoto was shot and killed by a guard at the entrance to Tule Lake. These men are the most commonly cited, if they are cited at all. (An eighth man, Ichiro Shimoda, was also murdered, also in Fort Sill, but the circumstances of his murder are unclear. Shimoda’s friends suspected that because he witnessed the murder of Oshima, he was detained by the military police, and died in their custody.) There has been neither justice for nor legitimate reckoning with these deaths. The murderers (both individuals and the systems to which they were reporting) reaped the benefit of passing into oblivion. (“THE DESCENDANT”)

Lately I’ve been going through Brandon Shimoda’s most recent collection, Hydra Medusa (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2023), a self-described continuation of his collection, The Desert (The Song Cave, 2018), a book I have only heard tell of. Hydra Medusa is a complex collection composed as a book of dreams and death, ancestors, parenting and desert stretches through a blend of essays and poems. “Death is what it took for us to be in each other’s company. But what kind of company was I?” he writes, two-thirds through the book. He writes of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during and around the Second World War, and of repeated murders and ancestors, and how lives can’t help but connect to each other. Hydra Medusa is a book on the living and the endless dead, seeking answers to questions that might be impossible to answer, or too individual to fully articulate. As he writes, early on, as part of the essay “THE DESCENDANT”: “What is an ancestor? I have been asking this question, the past few years, of descendants of Japanese American incarceration, many of whom are friends, some of whom are family, some of whom I have never met, but know through their answers. It is an ongoing question.” His is a book on ancestors and the dead and how and where responsibility lands; a cross-stitch of violence and memorialization, deserts and the spaces within which one not only occupies, but lives. He offers this insight, which I think a central point to anyone concerned with elements of extended family, genealogy or ancestors: “Ancestor worship is a process. The exact nature of the relationship between an ancestor and their descendant is always to be determined.” As he writes:

The ancestors, bedecked in robes of night
occupy a pantheon

We see ourselves in, imagine

in the shapes
of sparest humility,

Hang me in the alcove, I say,
to the future faction
that might draw me out of the well

There is something curious about the way the non-fiction prose aims for the heart of his subject matter, while the poems write a bit more abstract, writing as a kind of outline around and occasionally through that same purpose. If the prose feels more direct, the poems write slant, attending as a kind of connector between and amid prose sections, comparable to the abstract sections of Terrance Malick’s film The Tree of Life (2011) (a narrative structure more recently put to film effect through Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, as well). One could also compare this to the work of American poet Susan Howe: the call-and-response of her poetry collections that sit with opening essay and collage-poems as counterpoint of a larger, singular, book-length work. The difference of form isn’t merely used to open for another, or sit in opposition but through a sense of balance between. The structure allows for the possibility of pulling back to see a far larger context, one that suggests itself far larger and ongoing than what is possible within the bounds of even this single book.

The white cross on the hill of rocks
is a house without light
over the greenest fields in the valley

The virgin, embedded in rocks
prepared the white cross
with the attributes of lightlessness

that illuminate subterranean life

where the cross enters earth
children lay flowers

the cross turns at night
into snakes (“SAN XAVIER”)


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