Reviews / November 2009 (Issue 9)

On Losses in History: A Review of Brandon Shimoda's Inland Sea

by Craig Santos Perez


Brandon Shimoda, Inland Sea, Tarpaulin Sky, 2008. 36 pgs.

Inland Sea is a perfect-bound, limited edition collection of thirty pages of poetry. It's a small and beautiful artifact to hold. But the poems themselves burn through my hands with sharp lyricism, fiery abstraction, and unexpected narrative turns.

The book begins with a single line on a blank page: "Emperor though you are, your day is done. . . There is a capital in the waves." One of the major themes in Inland Sea is the bombing of Hiroshima, and there's a sense in the collection that a member of Shimoda's family survived the bombing. His work exists "in the waves" or "In the Middle of Migration"—the title of the first poem in which "we find ourselves / turning." This poem revolves around various men and threats. First, the father:

a single cloud holding
in the liquid
to my father
the afternoon after the morning of
the day he said that he liked men
or was it he said 'boys'
("In the Middle of Migration")

Second, the grandfather: "to avoid the trees / my grandfather / would not have forgiven me for / sympathizing with the natural world." And finally, the emperor: "clutching the emperor / to my cleavage—is he mammal—my shoulder—macaw." These sections create moments of character amidst more abstract meditations. The atmosphere, though, is one of threatened loss, possible betrayal, separation.

The second poem, "Crucian Carp," takes us into the most serious losses of life in history: "in radiation first is flash / burn, second / flame." In a later section, the people are "barely perceptible" and there is "no remnant / body or / her bones / among the ash." Inland Sea continues to explore the idea of escape and journey through the image of a boat and river. But even those in the boat are not safe:

the intimacy
of bodies fast becoming occasion
for slaughter
people—holding tight with ever
more thirst for their fat—
("Crucian Carp")

The people transform, or are recognized, as the speaker's family entering the river. After an intense, visceral description of their bodies, we read: "where / are their heads what / may I rest my head my hands / upon of them." The speaker, as if a ghost wandering through the post-Atomic Hiroshima, ends up "[i]nside of the nucleus of the Atomium," where "every surface is / a mirror I see my family in." He never learned any of their names, "for fear they would have changed my course." The poet speaks of this journey to the underworld of the imagination, this journey to the darkness of a family's history. The difficulty of writing this journey perhaps leads to Shimoda's use of fragment, amputated imagery, and atmospheric tones. Overall, though, the Inland Sea becomes a space where the imagination of trauma is "a procession of waves / drawing piles of stone, piles of stone."

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