Reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

An Aesthetic of Rest: Evening Oracle by Brandon Shimoda

by Blair Reeve


Brandon Shimoda, Evening Oracle, Letter Machine Editions, 2015. 148 pages.


At first, the cover image of Brandon Shimoda's Evening Oracle feels like an appropriation too far; the image is exotic Japan, which is soon displaced by erotic Japan: a girl whose shoulders are draped with snakes. She's serene and gazes calmly with the head of a snake in her mouth, as if the only way to avoid danger is to stay composed. We admire her poise. We notice the sepia tone of the photograph. We wonder about it as exploitative spectacle from a period past, and we envy the cultural strength inherent in the girl's determinedly naturalistic pose. It has the alien about it, not as an elusive Asian scene, but in the antiquated cast—how it looks like it belongs to a previous century, from our grandparents' era at least, but probably a generation before that, and only then, an ocean away from North America.

Evening Oracle, which won Shimoda the 2016 William Carlos Williams Award in the U.S., is divided into three parts—a series of poems, sometimes interlinked by image, title or phrase; a collection of excerpts of correspondences, to and from family and friends, often regarding the death of a grandparent and finally a second group of poems. Nearly all of the poems are given titles in Japanese.

Based on the theme of death and grieving in the epistolary section, I was inclined to read Evening Oracle as an echo of Shimoda's previous collection O Bon (a Buddhist custom of visiting the graves of one's ancestors), which offered poems dealing with the death of the poet's Japanese-American grandfather. And in Evening Oracle, we are tempted to look for glimpses of autobiography, for example, when we read of a migrant about to receive his bride from across the sea: 

The brides hold pictures to their chests
Unfamiliar faces of men
They are going to meet ("Africa Maru")

This collection too feels obliquely elegiac. It enacts or performs a protestation common to elegy—that of the recognition that death is ineffable, and that the inexpressibility of the depth of one's sincerity makes elegy often seem trite to its writer.  

Shimoda's verse takes in the sights and sounds of his wanderings in Japan, but always of a country grasped at arm's length by an American with an ancestral link and aesthetic interest in Japan. The speakers of these poems, mostly slanted at Shimoda-angles, but occasionally reflected back from an outside voice, such as the useful scene-setting poem "Eels and Catfish" by Hiromi Ito, observe, think, sketch jot and contrast. They visit certain locations—Tsurunoyu, Miyajima, Tohoku—with or without purpose. Other times, they move around, itinerant, self-aware, while thoughts of home and family enter their sleep. The elderly especially are points on the map of Shimoda's undertaking.

Death is ever present, in the short life of an insect in the two self-reflective poems entitled "Tamamushi," a funeral song in "Masako," or even the bomb in "Nagasaki." Of course, death is integral to the Japanese aesthetic of impermanence that gives rise to beauty, but Shimoda is more concerned with another aesthetic:

We went to Japan
To find the source of our restlessness
In an aesthetic of rest ("Mother And Son")

This aesthetic of rest manifests in the calm white spaces between the lines of Shimoda's pastel language. It also suggests the passing of elderly relatives, and graves featuring the Shimoda name, while yet reflecting the poet's preferred time for writing—in bed at night, glasses off, before going to sleep. Rest/death is a theme in "Nakanose," where Shimoda finds the graves of other, distant Shimodas. Here the persona lets slip a rare, but bare, self-conscious projection:

I can feel my vagrant idiocy
Mistranslating those
Unrelated to me
I visit still, repeatedly

And then from "Keyaki":

Eleven thousand times I am a stranger
Passing artifacts, ruins, afflictions, the path

These lines taken together with the contrast of "restlessness" and "rest" reveal the central conflicts in this book—the foreigner in elusive Japan, the disconnect between past and present lives and the unbridgeable gap between what it is one wants to say and what actually ends up on the page, as is characteristic of elegy.

The book's epistolary section arrives in time to provide some further context to Shimoda's journey. These excerpts from friends' letters often relate an elderly relation's final "mumble" or spoken "gibberish," or "a language that was all her own," as they exhale their last few breaths. A few pages later, a friend of Shimoda's, Matthew H., relates his experience of reading the poet's previous collection, O Bon. He concludes by defining poetry as "an expression of experience that cannot find its vocabulary," and thus gives us the linchpin in the schemata I'm building here—namely that of the inexpressibility topos pertinent to elegy, but which hints at other more Japanese aesthetic choices seen in Shimoda's sketchy, un-punctuated, twilit verse—that of suggestion and incompleteness. These recall Yoshida Kenko's tract on Japanese aesthetics, Tzureguresa: "[l]eaving something incomplete," says Kenko, "makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth." Ergo the elongated em dash that trails the imagistic three-line poem "Black Flags."

A heron wrapped in a torn standard
While smaller herons like asterisks
Bathe in the flash——

It's hard not to want to attribute Shimoda's poetics to his mode of bedtime writing—he casts a dreamy gauze over a poem's emotional centre, obscures the view by eschewing punctuation and mixing vague language and syntax among his concrete images. As a collection of notes collated to show a period of Shimoda's life, Evening Oracle might even be described as makura no soshi, or a pillow book. It does seem, I think, that the poet "follows the brush" in the manner of zuihitsu, given the way his musings drift like smoke, which is poetic thought sans planned structure. In "Tonosho," we get a few lines that explicate Shimoda's problem with capturing a meaningful image:

Perhaps the light is obscure
Not seeming to be

To aerate a metaphor
Is important
To be straight with what
You are not looking
At also

As such, there is an ephemeral quality to his scenes and images. These poems shift out of focus right as we read them, though we sense that with multiple readings and a little help from one's imagination, Shimoda's images will sharpen. On one night, staying above a bathhouse, the poet-persona dreams of "a snow-covered field / With a procession of white animals / Passing nightly." By the end of the poem, the

White animals rise
In echoes of a simple, arcane heat
Rewriting each night
Each night

I imagine these animals rising from the white background behind the poems' text, just as a picture eventually emerges the more one revisits an ambiguity. I shall finish this review with a reading of the first poem in the collection, the one I kept returning to each time my needle got stuck at some point later in the book.

"Two Women" is a purely imagistic poem of contrasts and similarities. Both titular characters travel on a mountain slope, but one goes up, the other down. Both carry dead babies, but on different parts of their bodies. Both wear robes and undergarments, but in different colour combinations of white, salmon and grey. Of the two stanzas, the first is succinct, boxy, made of a few short clauses, while the second elongates the phrases into seesawing sentences with verb phrases that spill over the line break. At first this scene of women on a mountainside resembles a photo, with the shutter click imaged in the line, "The mountain eclipsing the sky so briefly". But by the end of the second stanza it reminds me more of a woodblock print in the manner of Saito Kiyoshi with his limited earthen/black/white palette and simple sharp images. The bidirectional movement of the women coupled with their subtle contrasts seem to bring out themes of seeing and difference—this very non-Western scene is at once both plain and alien, and simply announces that death is a constant; its fact is the same everywhere, but its customs of grieving are very different.

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