Harp & Altar
POETRY
Roberta Allen is the author of eight books. Her fiction appears in the current issue of New Ohio Review. She teaches at the New School and in private workshops. A visual/conceptual artist as well, she has work in the collection of the Met. She can be found at www.robertaallen.com.

 

Kate Greenstreet’s second book, The Last 4 Things, will be out from Ahsahta Press in September. Her first, case sensitive, was published by Ahsahta in 2006. She is also the author of three chapbooks, most recently This is why I hurt you (Lame House Press, 2008). Her new work is in current or forthcoming issues of jubilat, Court Green, VOLT, Fence, and Denver Quarterly.

 

Poet and translator Jennifer Hayashida was born in Oakland, California, and grew up in the suburbs of Stockholm and San Francisco. She is the translator of Fredrik Nyberg’s A Different Practice (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007) and Eva Sjödin’s Inner China (Litmus Press, 2005). Additional poems and translations have appeared in literary journals and art exhibitions domestically and abroad. She lives in Brooklyn and is director of the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter College.

 

Lisa Jarnot’s books of poems include Some Other Kind of Mission (Burning Deck Press, 1996), Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001), Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions, 2003), and Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008). Her biography of Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, is forthcoming from University of California Press in 2011. She lives in Sunnyside, Queens, and is the owner of Catskills Organics Farm.

 

Karla Kelsey is author of two full-length books: Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary (Ahsahta Press, 2006) and Iteration Nets (forthcoming from Ahsahta). In addition, she has published three chapbook-length books: Little Dividing Doors in the Mind (Noemi Press, 2005), Three Movements (Pilot Press, 2009), and Into the eyes of lost storms (Cannibal Books, 2009).

 

Justin Marks’s first book is A Million in Prizes (New Issues Press, 2009). He is also the author of several chapbooks, including Voir Dire (Rope-a-Dope Press, 2009). New work can be found in the Raleigh Quarterly and Tusculum Review. He is the founder and editor of Kitchen Press Chapbooks and lives in New York with his wife and their infant son and daughter.

 

Stephen-Paul Martin has published many books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. His most recent collection is The Possibility of Music (FC2, 2007). He is a professor in San Diego State University’s MFA program.

 

Patrick Morrissey’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, New American Writing, and other journals, and his chapbook Transparency is forthcoming from Cannibal Books in fall 2009. His essay on John Taggart appeared in the previous issue of Harp & Altar. He lives in New York.

 

Eileen Myles is a poet (Sorry,Tree) who writes fiction (Chelsea Girls, Cool for You). The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art, for which she received a Warhol/Creative Capital grant, will be out in July from Semiotext(e)/MIT. She is professor emeritus of writing and literature at University of California, San Diego. She lives in New York.

 

Michael Newton’s gallery reviews have appeared in previous issues of Harp & Altar.

 

Linnea Ogden’s writing has appeared in Coconut, Boston Review, and Ploughshares. She lives and works in San Francisco.

 

Joanna Ruocco lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she co-edits Birkensnake, a fiction journal. She has published stories in Marginalia, Quick Fiction, Tarpaulin Sky, No Colony, Web Conjunctions, Caketrain, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, The Baker's Daughters, is forthcoming from mudluscious press; her short story collection, Man’s Companions, is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press; and her novel The Mothering Coven is forthcoming from Ellipsis Press.

 

Rob Schlegel’s The Lesser Fields was selected for the 2009 Colorado Prize for Poetry and will appear this November from the Center for Literary Publishing. With Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel, he is publisher of the Catenary Press. His collaborations with Allison Titus appear in Diode and Make, and he occasionally posts at woodandwhat.blogspot.com.

 

Zachary Schomburg is the author of The Man Suit (Black Ocean 2007) and Scary, No Scary (Black Ocean 2009). His translations from the Russian have appeared in Jacket, Circumference, Mantis, and The Agriculture Reader. He co-edits Octopus Magazine and Octopus Books. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

 

Andrei Sen-Senkov is a Russian poet born in Tajikistan in 1968. He is now living as a medical doctor in Moscow. He is the author of eight books of poems, the latest of which is Slash (2008).

 

Jared White grew up in Massachusetts and lives in Brooklyn. A chapbook of his poems entitled Yellowcake was included in the recent anthology Narwhal from Cannibal Books. Other poems have appeared in journals such as Barrow Street, Coconut, Fulcrum, Horse Less Review,The Modern Review, Verse, and Word For/Word. He has written essays for the Poets Off Poetry series and Open Letters, and his last poetry review for Harp & Altar was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. From time to time, he blogs at jaredswhite.blogspot.com and plays the piano and the vibraphone.

 

David Wirthlin is the author of Houndstooth (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009) and Your Disappearance (forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books). His work has also appeared in Denver Quarterly, elimae, and Sleepingfish. He holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is currently at work on a PhD from the University of Denver. He is editor of the smallHABITS chap-journal of innovative fiction.

 

Michael Zeiss’s writing has appeared in previous issues of Harp & Altar. He lives in Woodside, Queens.
The Surveyor: Brandon Shimoda's Radical Geographies
Jared White

The Alps, by Brandon Shimoda (Flim Forum Press, 2008)

 

The Inland Sea, by Brandon Shimoda (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008)

 

I am writing these words in a house at the top of a grassy mountain ridge in California, the grasses nourished by spring rains to a rowdy green that spreads out beyond the window and downhill. Today the fog has blown in and out at least three times, periodically rendering the window, from my chair, a vantage point only on a misty white nothing.

This seems to me a deeply appropriate place in which to read the poetry of Brandon Shimoda. His book The Alps sits on my lap, open to a passage in the middle where Shimoda pairs prismatic, cropped, minimalist lines with the repeated figure of a square, large and airy in the center of the page. Turning the pages like a flip-book, the squares rush by, always set in the same spatial orientation, a narrativeless comic strip. The square is like its own miniature blank page, or like a frame in a photo album with the image missing. (This latter image would make the text, placed below the object, a kind of commentary, a gloss on these absent images, absent memories.) Most of all, though, the white box is like a window, an aperture in the unbroken plane of a sheet of paper.

A window with nothing outside of it suggests a space on which anything can be projected, a literal open field in the model proposed by Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and other progenitors of the poetics of organic form. Shimoda certainly partakes of his own kind of organic structuring of poems on the page, one that persistently bends—and breaks—its own rules. An old poetry workshop adage holds that a book of poems ought to teach you how to read it; Shimoda’s poetry seems to rewrite its own rules over and over, reinventing how poems may constitute themselves as poems.

                If one flips farther through the book in either direction from these “square” poems, which are preceded by a page that announces, perhaps as section heading, the prettily romantic title “the Headmaidens & Bridesmen” (making this a kind of wedding picture series or comic May Day revels), one finds the square replicated textually in a series of poems all entitled, in winking repetition of the title of the book, “THE ALPS.” Under this recurrent heading, nine lowercase lines—or empty spaces holding their spot—face one another across vertical space, right- and left-justified so as to delineate the same square territory at the stately center of the page, modest compared to the large whiteness surrounding it. One might read these pieces as individual poems, though the book, with its playful variation of typefaces and relations between text and title, seems intent on discombobulating such labels as much as possible. In any case, these floating “ALPS”—twenty-two in total distributed throughout the book—take on the cumulative effect of a serial poem. They crop up unexpectedly, two or three at a time, not necessarily accreting narrative or imagery so much as a tone that is incantatory and surgical, like macro close-ups of unidentifiable, half-vegetal organ insides. For instance:

 

fibrous in fallows                                                       the covers remove

crudes marionetting the crudes

in the test of the eye                                                               converting

                                                                                  out the uninfluences

ulterior to the tonal mountain

without movement                                         blows empty in the lake

dispersing over the knee and not                                                simply

the sapphire thread                                                            the lilac field

defective flowers                                   in rage along their inner part

 

This box appears full of prisms and light refracted, proposing different possibilities of space and time. One might read this vertically or horizontally, synchronically or diachronically, as one voice or several. A pastoral scene is vaguely sketched— a lake, a fallow pasture, varicolored flowers—but with seemingly contradictory details and foci. The eye drifts, or things drift past the eye whose weight, like the lengths of the lines, vary irregularly, in illegible patterns. I understand this poem as an allegory about representation: how the act of describing reality is organic and messy, never abstract or Platonic. Thus partial objects give way to equally partial renderings by means that are ultimately just as physical, molecular, and crude: pencil lead, printer’s ink, wood pulp paper. Still, certain lines continue resolutely to bollix, insisting on an undigestible other, an “out” that is full of “ulterior[s]” and “uninfluence[s],” a “dispersi[on]”, an inaccessible “inner part.” No reading is complete, every reading is only a “defective” efflorescence.

It is in this same framework that the book opens, with a page containing only a single, large-font line: “HOW will I ever find the scenery.” This may be read as a title to the poem that follows as one turns the page, as its first line, or as the opening of a section of the book as a whole (other poems possess more discrete, small-font capitalized titles placed above them at the top of the page). It might be a poem all by itself: the originating “HOW” in all caps offering an open “O” sound of invocation that is answered by the top-of-the-mouth vowel sounds of e and i in this plaintive rhetorical question without punctuation or response. What does it mean to “find the scenery”? It suggests a theatrical character in search of a backdrop, a refugee in search of a home, a poet in search of the language that can embody or resurrect the feeling of a place.

The impulse to parse this mysterious clause is impeded by the attempt to link it to the lines that follow on the next page: “When (in place of / Peaches frozen to the corpse / Rubbed in swords touched to the sea, are all in legs, uncrossing.” The grammar consistently avoids completion, piling on commas, subordinate phrases, and even the open-ended parenthesis to postpone any categorical statement. Yet what comes across in the signal is a further expression of weightlessness yearning for weight. Peaches, emblem of coarse and dripping vivacity, are not only frozen but frozen “to the corpse,” if their inedibility were not in question enough. The “swords touched to the sea”—a phrase that conjures a King Canute unsuccessfully beating back the waves—take on hints of masturbatory violence and sexual awakening. This is a disturbing and unsettled world that makes it difficult, near impossible, to “find the scenery” within it. It might be a kind of ars poetica for the book, which frequently returns to this imagery of blossoming alpine meadows even as it is haunted by a violence that lurks beneath it, perhaps in the valley below. With what integrity, given the horrors of violence and death that play out under even this most sumptuous proscenium, can one find the scenery merely scenic?

One of the key texts of The Alps, coming roughly two-thirds of the way through this epic book—comprising nearly 140 pages, it stands out as easily twice as big as most of the books on my poetry shelves—is a poem whose triptych-like title opens up a complex scheme of associative configurations: “TRINITY / NEUTRALITY / THE DRAFT.” In another play with the possibilities of names, this tripling effect is in itself prefigured by the first word of what appears to be a new and different holy “trinity”: multiplicity (or spirituality, or spirit); distance (or non-interference, or non-being); and submission (or the duty to fight, to war). Each of these words quivers with meaning. As the first element, trinity suggests the harmony in a musical chord, the religious concept of the impossible yet real coexistence of contrary values, the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The title’s second aspect, neutrality, could signify either a harmful state of being—callous non-involvement during a time of crisis, non-response to a plea for help—or a positive act, a passionate refusal to fight, to engage directly in violence and destruction. Neutrality could be a form of covert collaboration, such as the Swiss bankers brokering expropriated valuables with the Nazis, or it could be a form of protest, as in Roland Barthes’s notion of the neuter or neutral of language, language that eludes the law and eludes becoming the law. The draft, lastly, can be read either as a military conscription or as a work of writing that remains unfinished and changeable. It might be final and conclusive, a death warrant signed by an older generation against a younger one, or it might be eternally open-ended, a provisional text that is only ever finished for now, made of words not solid but airy, a wind leaking in around the windowsill and under the doorjamb.

At first seemingly self-referential or perhaps ecclesiastical, the word “trinity” carries perhaps the heaviest secondary associations. Read against the military tones of “neutral” and “draft,” the word announces itself as the code name given to the first nuclear bomb test, the plutonium model later used on Nagasaki. One might read this trinity as a narrative, the shadow of the bomb destroying neutrality, imposing its draft on all in its path of destruction. The title of the book, The Alps, takes on a different significance then; it is not the Alps of leisurely winter sports and summertime idylls, or of Wallace Stevens’s lapidary botanist pondering impressionism and the wreck of history from the safe vista of the funicular. Rather, these might be the Alps circa 1945, a politically neutral space (recalling the white page bordered by that black square) that achieves its neutrality only through careful boundaries, a treacherous geography of cliffs and crags, and an ever-present threat of violence lurking in the hills. It is the neutral high vantage point to view the destruction of a continent, of a world.

The poem begins by exploring this destructive weapon test, immediately transformed into a kind of sensuous blur in which division between self and other breaks down: “The day the trinity weapon was tested / Heat massaged someone pushing / By the shoulders I fell back / Into the river. There were no grunts.” A grunt functions simultaneously as a marker of language and its loss, the grunt as a human attempt to communicate or merely the porcine vocalizing of an animal. Grunt is also a synecdoche for one who is to grunt assent, a low-ranking soldier, a follower of orders. This impressionistic swoon—a kind of sympathetic imagining of the experience of being incinerated in a nuclear blast—causes no grunts not only in the sense that the explosion kills everyone, reduces everyone to silence, but also that it turns soldier grunts into desperate civilians in a reversal of the notion that there are no civilians in a war zone. At ground zero, everyone is neutralized, everyone is simply human, and then (too quickly even to make a grunt) blown up into nothing at all, less than dust.

The poem goes on, in a series of chunky, majusculated quatrains, cinquains and sestets, to expand this situation into a mash-up of pan-historical war zones, with “arrows,” “Ghost solider[s],” and “Cassandra” scattered through the terrain. An attempt to parse these pieces neatly, though, is impeded by the collage-like discourse that leaves striking images such as “Noise like a lady winding her skirts around” floating mysteriously on the page. The most disjunctive lines avoid grammar altogether, substituting a motif of list-making, such as “Schrund   Herba   Goat   Garland” and “Lace   Cida   Soldanella   Boar, the entire beast.” The rules keep changing in this puzzle that does not mean to be solved. How does one put together these disparate words, like spell-casting ingredients for some impossible potion? In the first instance, we have “schrund,” Swiss-German mountaineering slang for “bergschrund,” an icy glacial crevasse, poised against “herba,” a botanist’s Latin for grass, the “goat” that might munch on such grasses, and the “garland” that might be woven from them in summer revels. Perhaps this is a suggestion of the dangerous wintry landscape that coexists with the summer bounty in the mountains, or simply a cornucopia of alpine-ism, the Alps as lexicon, a mountain of language half-foreign and half-homey.

The second list offers “lace” and “soldanella,” two alpine flowers: dainty white lace the more familiar with its domestic overtones of lacework, and purplish soldanella, a.k.a. snowbell, the more exotic in its graceful untranslated name, the sound of which carries the slightest hint of “soldier.” These terms are further complicated by “Boar, the entire beast,” which sounds like a kind of culinary suggestion in a recipe, alongside the odd cropped “cida,” which might be a word fragment (camera lucida?), or maybe a warping of the murderous suffix -cide. The yoking together of these pieces exemplifies the shifting methodologies that Shimoda uses throughout the book, offering things of very different atomic weights in the same place, or playing slight-of-hand games in which the sector occupied by single words is suddenly occupied by the comically enlarged—though also threatening—“Boar, the entire beast” just as the reader is getting accustomed to the pattern. The point may not be to connect these dots, exactly, but to experience the shifting colors and tonalities between them, like an eye scanning across a panorama and seeing many and various things, not all of them connected except anecdotally and experientially.

What may be happening in Shimoda’s writing is less a kind of communication through grammar and more a tour through a thinking process or a memory, using language to trace the contours of an encounter with the richly laden space of the Alps from the perspective of an outsider who is taking in the language and the sights and the culture, internalizing it as a hodgepodge of new and old memories, real and imagined. The opening line recurs in a different key halfway through the poem:

 

The day the trinity weapon was deployed

I kept myself between the ostensible

Roots loose in the melt

 

Hütte plants knocking

Miniature soldiers ascending the sails of the hand

Crafted mills

To write from the sun

On the roadside, ripping amiable locals

 

The voice here imposes itself into the bombing zone as a kind of apparition, “between the ostensible” as if into the empty space between those terms in the Swiss lists, or the differential gap between their various meanings. Even that unnecessary German “hütte”—Shimoda could just have easily written “hut” or “house plants”—proffers the texture of two languages rubbing against each other, the happy face look of two googley dots floating over a u, the taste of an umlaut in the mouth.

The next stanza follows the same format, each line creating a friction against the one before, with heard enjambments like “hand / Crafted” registering without necessarily touching ground. The last lines provide a possible window into the process of writing as travel diary, the visitor sitting in a sunny patch beside a road, watching the locals and either “ripping” them through judgment and satire or ripping into them through projection and empathy. They must deserve something, with that ruddy and earthy “amiable” creating the bubbly rhythm that closes this section of the poem.

Now halfway through, the gears shift entirely, as a break in the text leads into a series of longer-lined onelets, irregularly indented, in a totally different tone and speed, enthusing in an unbroken first person about the sensuous ecstasy of foods. This might be a ventriloquism of those locals, perhaps, or a kind of palinode, retracting the ambivalent negativity of the earlier lines with this comical song of appetite. Shimoda writes:

 

I love the way fat spreads across hardening rolls

I love sardines

                In a good way—I love

The way sardines pour off the shoulders of men and women

Standing on cold tiles

 

These lines continue to employ a kind of surrealist blender that mashes image against image, sound against sound—just as earlier the stern “Hütte” plopped next to the chaos of “plants knocking” beside “Miniature soldiers.” The images these unlikely juxtapositions create are nevertheless arresting and altogether original: the toy soldiers hoisting war flags as they sail their flotilla (like Greeks en route to Troy?) on the palm of a hand, or here this bounty of sardines frothing forth from a showerhead, excessive and ridiculous and smelly and beloved all at once. The language, psychedelia at its most lucidly ecstatic, speeds on in these lines, taking in and strangely accepting everything, everything as strange.

 

I love tongues, I love beef tongues, I love to sink my hand sideways

                Into beef tongues. They said my grandfather bit off

His tongue and spit it

Out the window of the train carrying him from the south

To the high flaying desert

                The north. As it turns

                Out, it was

                Not his tongue

He bit, but

Love fell from the window, I love how it fell from the window

 

Even these gory, horrific images become recuperated by the energy of the lines, the Whitmanesque turn toward “love” that is an admission of the humorousness of serious things. The poem closes with a kind of gastronomic explosion that rewrites the trinity bomb as a toddler playing with squishy foods:

 

By the one living leaf, I spread myself

Apples I love—hard, green

Peaches, meatballs, the way fruit explodes when a body is dropped from above

                Onto fruit

Ham of course milk

 

These protestations of love seem anything but neutral; they may be half-joking and over-the-top, and there may be that sinister “when a body is dropped” lurking, but they work to reconfigure the jaggedness of the preceding lines with their bawdy, infantile lyricism. The poem as a whole creates a shape like a schematic Alp, sloping up into a heady space of linguistic shards and exotic sounds, an elegy of dissolution and brokenness, then down into the body, gorging at a feast of plain foods, plain words. Or perhaps, the shape might signify the inverse: a crevasse, a bergshrund of dangerous, bewildering fantasies before climbing back up and out into the equally phantasmagorical real world.

The inversion might be a useful image. Flipping back a few pages from this poem to the closest page that holds one of the book’s single large-font lines of text, like section headings, we read “AT FIRST the ice presented,” a line which reveals itself on the next page as part of a quotation from the mountain explorer John Tyndall: “At first the ice presented an appearance of utter confusion, but we soon reached a position where the mechanical conditions of the glacier revealed themselves, and where we might learn, had we not known it before, that confusion is merely the unknown intermixture of laws, and becomes order and beauty when we rise to their comprehension.” Tyndall’s lines insist on the profound oppositions at the basis of perception, locating such categories as “confusion” and “beauty” not as inherent qualities of the objects themselves, but rather of the wide-eyed viewer, learning how to see and to understand. Glaciers are, of course, extremely disorienting spaces, full of hidden interior hollows and rivers, imperceptibly flowing. What would be the position where revelation occurs, where bewilderment gives way to awe? Shimoda’s poems, in their dense mysteriousness, enact this process of version and inversion, offering glimpses of a clarity that is immanent but does not arrive.

Thinking about this idea draws me to the image on the cover of the book. This image is yet another inversion, flipping the exposure from darks to lights of a strange and disturbing photograph that appears on the page before the Tyndall quotation, depicting an indeterminate mob of people in cowl-like attire, all staring upward, wide-eyed, their right arms raised in the clenched salute of a god hurling lightning bolts. They might be preachers, monks, protestors, refugees, cultists, revolutionaries, prisoners; the image, which appears once again in the familiar box space that is the book’s field of action, is too cropped and ill-lit to tell. It leaves them as mute, stunned busts, their gesture dwarfed beneath a vast darkness of sky overhead. Behind them looms the pinnacle either of a faraway tower or perhaps of the barrel of a rifle’s bayonet. The low-resolution grain and boxy aspect ratio—the photograph appears in the familiar square terrain centered on the page—give it the look of a television still, an image that has been captured illicitly from the feed, that would just as soon return to the unconscious.

On the cover of the book, the image appears even more dramatically, blown up so the busts of the figures loom on the page. Here, the colors are inverted, turning the figures’ robes silvery and their white beards black, as the night sky becomes the snowy white of the Alps, a blank on which the title’s words float in large black serif font, the “A” a pictogram of a mountain, an ink Matterhorn. When I saw the cover image, all I could think of was the famous painting of El Greco, “The Opening of the Fifth Seal,” with its disturbed central figure of St. John, robed in a crumpled aquamarine cassock, his arms swaying up toward a sky erupting with jagged veins of stormy brightness. It is an arresting image of the apocalypse, though its original title was, in fact, more open-endedly, “Profane Love.” (And The Alps is certainly full of moments of profane love; Shimoda frequently inserts in the midst of pious utterances and awed scenery a bracingly rude, unrepentant “crotch,” “breast,” “bulge,” “prick,” “vagina,” or even “blue / dicks.”)

In a surprising turn at the end of a book that is, after all, a compendium of surprising turns, the final poem is not Shimoda’s own but instead a long quotation from Thomas Merton’s “La Salette.” Shimoda clips the throat-clearing syntax of Merton’s first line “It is the” leaving the vaguer and less declamatory “A HUNDRED YEARS since your shy feet” functioning as a kind of gateway title into this poem, only identified as Merton’s at the bottom of the next page. Even this very small alteration makes the poem feel much more modern and fresh—more like Robert Duncan, say, and less like Robinson Jeffers. In this poem, Merton refers to a celebrated miracle in the French Alps in 1846 when the Virgin Mary was said to have visited two shepherd children with apocalyptic visions of the future. The poem revisits these events at the end of two world wars, declaring the prophecies virtually fulfilled. Shimoda shrewdly excises the final, melodramatic stanza of Merton’s poem, which links it directly to El Greco, to the Book of Revelations, and then to the warmaking of the trinity bomb as well:

 

John, in the might of his Apocalypse, could not fore-tell

Half of the story of our monstrous century,

In which the arm of your inexorable Son,

Bound, by His Truth, to disavow your intercession

For this wolf-world, this craven zoo,

Has bombed the doors of hell clean off their hinges,

And burst the cage of antichrist,

And roused, with His first two great thunderbolts,

The chariots of Armageddon.

 

Without the blatant brimstone and portent of these closing lines, the poem hangs in a more ambiguous space in which “The things you said” that “Have come to be fulfilled” are uncertain. The story of La Salette, with peasant children in a bucolic hinterlands predicting the destruction of Paris and Marseille, or of Shimoda’s project, with the same stark, grand, breathtaking landscape producing a near-endless series of different responses—some laughing, some devotional, some darkling—is ultimately about the uncertain relationship between the human and that inhuman “scenery” that the speaker searches for, all that is exterior to us, whether natural or divine.

The last year has been something of an annus mirabilis for Brandon Shimoda, offering publication not only of the voluminous The Alps, but also the more compressed meditation The Inland Sea, which is of a more approachable pocket size, somewhere between book and chapbook. While The Alps might be said in filmic terms to offer perspectives of the wide-image panorama or the disorienting extreme close-up, The Inland Sea, by contrast, stays more in the middle distance, with medium shots of people and actions. If the central figure of The Alps is the discrete window-like square, The Inland Sea proposes the O: featureless zero, pregnant belly, ideogram of an orifice, an open eye or open mouth, a moon-gate, a planet. It is the O of an oracle, the bardic O of apostrophe and inspiration, the despairing O of Job but also the O of ode-making, of throat music. In a fascinating online discussion with his frequent collaborator Phil Cordelli (the two have published under the collective band-like name The Pines), Shimoda writes of this O:

 

I immediately began to conceive of it as an enso character, connoting a variety of things, among them emptiness and, subsequently, possibility. This relates to the mind and the body in the process of composition, but also to a sense of desperation. . . . Failure and disaster are, after all, rich possibilities. [It is] an eye emerging from the darkness, from the dark accumulation of all prior attempts to respond, to stare me directly in the face.

 

The image on the cover offers, instead of the tumult of The Alps, a simple head shot of a young woman, facing the camera. The text of the title is split over the spine so it reads “The In / land Sea.” These two halves are like little poems, each of unequal pieces. On the back cover, “The In” sets the specificity of a definite article against the open-endedness of “In,” objectifying interiority itself, or the movement inward; behind it we see the woman in profile, her mien gentle but unreadable. The front cover places the lowercase “land” against the uppercase “Sea,” producing an image of a Sea perhaps made of land, a Sea that can be walked on. The two unequal, diametrical words produce a vibrating friction that thrums beneath the image behind it, now of the woman facing the camera directly, staring at the reader with liquid blue eyes. What is this Inland Sea, then? Is it the sea of the personal interior, or the sea of geography, the vast, deep reservoirs in vaster continents?

Whereas The Alps seems to lean more toward the geographical, with the voice of an interloper working through a process of assimilating a landscape, The Inland Sea works from the inside out, producing images that seem to arise out of memory and family history. The somewhat cryptic notes in the back of The Inland Sea propose the possibility that this cover image depicts the author’s mother (“Karen Shimoda, née McAlister”) years before his birth. Elaborating on this theme of parenthood and ancestry, the poems weave in fragments of stories based on family relationships. It is a family that encompasses Japan and America and moves back and forth between these heritage zones, as the quasi-title/opening line at the start of the book indicates, “IN THE MIDDLE OF MIGRATION.”

The deployment of kinship, though, is not a simple process of storytelling or memory recovering. For instance, in one section, Shimoda writes,

 

to avoid the trees

my grandfather

would not have forgiven me for

sympathizing with the natural world

 

 

 

a broken vow, he loved

never sympathized

when he went natural

many years hence to its level

over the blowdown, the weather

watching, enfeebled lady

 

The grandfather enters this poem as a tutelary intelligence, yet the broken syntax does not clarify the grandfather’s particular opinion about the natural world that he is both distinct from and subsumed into. This is not a story per se, but rather a choreography, a series of gestures developing various relations between environment and self (avoidance, sympathy, naturalization, weakening).

Another poem proposes a similarly equivocal relation between self and ancestry, mind and body:

 

drinks praise from attentive

blooms along hard, dated

ground      a single life’s

 

length below

 

I slip into atomy

 

 

my family walked into      the river uneven

curtain stretched from the wood—

 

Once again the sinuous unbroken syntax, moving from fragmentary image to fragmentary image, produces a series of emotional landmarks, rather than an argument. It zigzags between moments of ecstatic fulfillment and tremulous incertitude, lush words like “praise” and “blooms” hovering above the lowly “single life’s // length below.” The “I” becomes skeletal, a body starved to its limits as pure, merest life, as it also becomes atom-y, reduced to its physics, its inert molecules. The image of walking into a river may be a suicide or a death act, or on the other hand a rebirth, a baptism, or a family adventure. That curtain might be a barrier against the organic or an emanation of it, a curtain that closes at the end of a drama, or a screen on which a drama may be projected, an outdoor scrim for shadow play with light.

                Shimoda refers midway through The Inland Sea to three books about historical Japan: Heike Mogotari, with its interwoven epic of samurai clans; Nihongi, the official national history; and Shimoda Story, an account of the first American consulate in Japan, in the city of Shimoda. The Inland Sea might be another kind of Shimoda story, a self-portrait by way of accumulated particles and details, one that gathers pieces that refuse to quite cohere. The word “NIHONGI” is placed below a block of text that is full of excisions and blank hyphens where perhaps words have been lost or left untranslated: “— — autumns fair rice ear land — — descendents be lords / — — grandchild proceed —  — and govern.” This comes across like a garbled telegram, talking about history, inheritance, and the responsibility of future generations in a voice that cannot quite be understood.

                The corresponding gesture at the end of The Alps is even more provocatively dispersed, offering, beneath the mute title of three colons, a kind of scatterplot or smorgasbord of individual characters, as if the text itself were battered and torn to pieces in a violent explosion. One struggles to bring momentary order to the chaos on the page, seeing ghosts of words (I was? kiln? forage? hunt? kilo?) in the following excerpt:

 

Iwa                    k    i    l    n

                                 ingw

f               or            age        shi            h                  unt

           o           r                     o               ppas

                               k    I    l

 

It may be helpful to see the two books not as distinct projects, but rather as complementary angles on the same subject, the same interior/exterior geography with its troubles and anxieties. As the trinity bomb haunts the speaker in The Alps, the radioactive specter of the bomb casts a similar plume of destruction over The Inland Sea as well, with its language of horrible “flash burn” followed by “flame.” The speaker imagines himself as subject and product of violence and atrocity done to and by the body: “The guards found me wrapped / in a bladder / seized with the enormity of flesh / spoiling / trigone—ureter, urethra and bulwark.” Every vista, from the vast to the quantum, becomes an insistent, unyielding self-portrait: “Inside of the nucleus of the Atomium / every surface is / a mirror I see my family in // though I never learned any of their names”.

What animates both these books of Shimoda’s is the unknowability of the self even as it offers more and more angles, more ideas, more perceptions and experiences. Interior spaces that are mountainous or oceanic are intimidating, perilous, full of challenge, depth and danger. If one response to the tortured web of history is apocalyptic prophecy, another is the fade back to white, to the fogged-in window, the empty page. Shimoda closes the intricate, jagged-edged poem at the end of The Inland Sea with an admission of amnesia that is also a point of contact, like the face on the book’s cover gazing out at the reader. It is self-lacerating forgetfulness that is also elegy, a surrender to wonder and mystery:

 

I don’t remember seeing you

I don’t even remember when I first saw you

 

This seems a fair response to the search proposed in The Alps: “HOW will I ever find the scenery.” Where does this quest lead us? Where we came from, even if we don’t remember.