The Girl Without Arms
Saturday, April 23rd, 2011
Brandon Shimoda’s The Girl Without Arms (Black Ocean 2010) speaks with a spiritual intensity driven by intuitive pressures to probe through vestiges of family history and the immediate geographic/emotional locations of composition. The resulting book constructs an image, in infrared, of Shimoda’s consciousness. The dominant mode of being in these poems casts a dark heat—desire and destruction couple in his imagination, and its terrains concatenate with lush (emotional) desolation. The text’s landscapes are both central and spectral—they haunt his being, tilting his psyche as he wrestles with his feelings, with others, with ghostly whispers from beyond. There isn’t space for a middle ground in this sort of writing: his spirit ravages and is ravaged, and in tracking these contortions, his turns of phrase swerve with a symbolic richness reaching towards religiosity.
We come to the text through the portal of family history. The cover image, a red block print of a geometric mandala, “is a family insignia taken from a photographic portfolio made and belonging to [his] grandfather, Midori Shimoda (1910-1996).” Readers familiar with B. Shimoda’s other work—The Alps (Flim Forum), The Inland Sea (Tarpaulin Sky), and LAKE M (Corollary Press)—will recognize how central Midori Shimoda has become to his grandson’s poetic practice. Through Midori Shimoda, B. Shimoda accesses twinned landscapes of trauma—the bombing of Hiroshima, and of Japanese internment. Furthermore, M. Shimoda was interned during WWII at Ft. Missoula, a camp for “dangerous persons” of Japanese ancestry, and many of the poems from A Girl Without Arms were composed in Missoula. Much of the psychic violence captured in the book’s pages have roots in this familial trauma. He offers some explicit references, such as
The prisoner remembers
each of the eggplantsof Fuji
but for the most part, the violence within the text is rendered into an atmosphere, a mood that inhabits and roils the poem, the smoldering desire for destruction.
I climb through the black lining of the sky
Sag the relapsing throat of night
Without complement. I want
Thousands of people
At once. I want to watch thousands of people
Jump from windows
One hundred stories high
The book’s title also alludes to violence and couples it with curtailed desires. Through the figure of a girl without arms, we are confronted with an amputated body that can neither reach out nor grasp. The girl without arms is also a mythic figure with global traces; she appears in folk and fairy tales from South Africa to Japan. Considered by some scholars to reflect a young woman’s rite of passage from childhood into adulthood, her maturation is stained with violence and abuse. She’s a fascinating, if ghostly, presence that hovers over the writing. The notes for Shimoda’s author page at Black Ocean Press make these links apparent: she
is a figure in Japanese folklore—a young girl whose arms are lopped off by her father, and is left to die in the mountains. The father, at the behest of his evil wife—the girl’s stepmother—lures the girl into the mountains at the promise of attending a neighboring festival.
Though Shimoda’s poems rarely weave in the folk tale in any explicit fashion and I had to turn to these para-textual sources to confirm the connection, his work shares strong resonances with the tale’s themes: landscape, desire, and suffering. Additionally, by invoking the Japanese version of the tale (in other versions, she lives and is happily married off), Shimoda confirms a poetic praxis that obliquely engages his heritage to suggest how it shapes his contemporary being. In this manner, the figure of the girl without arms couples with Midori Shimoda to become a haunted terrain, the psychic staging ground for the collection. He claims, “I want to remember, No / I want to see” (55), and the world that opens before him is indelibly tinted with these historical and mythic presences.
Dead relatives reach into the cupboard
Shattering reliquary oak
To find a female embedded still
Awaiting her groom
In silence, Blasted
From scalp to neck
The poems are replete with this sense of haunting, of a collision and transferral between here and elsewhere, now and another when.
The text is divided into three major sections, beginning with a short, two-part lyric prelude that then opens into the larger sections “DISQUIET PART ONE,” “THE GIRL WITHOUT ARMS,” and “DISQUIET PART TWO.” The opening of the text is gestural, evocative, and spacious.
For a moment seems
the only way
To live, to speak
Out of turn
is actually listening
There are a myriad of ways to read this opening, all of which lead to intriguing positions for the writing. The first is to read this as an assertion that one can only live in the present moment and attempt to speak of it, to render it in language in some way. The “whom” of the address emerges clearly then: an unnnamed figure, but a consciousness nonetheless, attends to the speech and is “actually listening.” However, given Shimoda’s interest in family history and its seepages into the present, this analysis seems to me too closed for his project. An alternative reading is far less assertive. It turns this into a query—for a moment “seems / the only way.” The “whom” then takes on an interrogative cast, and the poems become a means for reaching towards, groping. And the towards that these poems reach for remains ambiguous—perhaps even a potential absence. A third possibility is that the “whom” is simultaneously the addressee of these utterances and their subject: the text listens as it is being uttered.
The personal aspects of the writing lean me towards this third analysis. I write “personal” rather than “private,” for there is nothing confessional at work in these poems—they operate in a collisional sense—with the interior confronting the forces that press on it, whether those be other people, texts, memories, or spaces. When most successful, he dovetails emotional registers with transformative leaps in his images. In this short excerpt from the first “DISQUIET,” he renders the intensity of heartbreak into a landscape that estranges and terrifies.
though I did not cry
And then I cried
a plague of clouds
riverbank showered with corneas
the sonic ring of trees
in the silence
Hovers the jaw
Elisabeth and Lucas, I am sorry
Shimoda sets an emotional drama in this space of disembodied jaws and rivers strewn with corneas, and the quietness of the tears and apology anchor the writing. The velocity with which he does this might change, but the central approach remains in other sections:
I opened the door
Pulled the suffering lady to the street
Put my fist through her mouth and pulled the roots out
Of the ground, Her eyes filled fast
I wept into the fish in her throat
Swam back through my eyes
Darts stuffed into her carriage, As if green grass had been stewed
Into the meal of her life.
In this excerpt, from a section subtitled “IN AN ACT OF TERRIBLE VENGEANCE I LOVE YOU,” the violence of the encounter with the suffering lady echoes the violence suffered by the girl without arms. For Shimoda, that suffering is intensely personal, and embracing it allows him to engage more fully with this haunted terrain. While punching through this woman, she transforms into an unruly plenitude of sorrows, full of milk, roots, and fish. The success of this maneuver, however, hinges on the reader’s ability to identify the deep thematic echoes at work between his text and his interests.
In order to perform this collision and pursue larger resonances in its shapes, Shimoda frequently makes surprising turns in the writing, which can be opaque. The result is a text that sometimes operates in its own world of codes, rules, and symbols.
THROUGH EVERY GOD
IS AN EMPRESS OATH BEFORE THE BOMBS
A BOMB IS AN OATH THAT POWER MADE
IN SACRED STRIPS FROM FACE AND CHEST
This excerpt reads with an almost prophetic insistence, but is obscured by the terms of its own rendering. In that regard, the writing approaches an almost religious symbolic ordering of experience. This is in part due to the magnitude of the histories and figures Shimoda trades in, but also as a result of his poetics. For instance, all of his books that I named earlier are part of an unfolding project and can be seen as various iterations of the same nexus of interests: family, history, landscape, and self. For those devotees of Shimoda’s work familiar with his terms and figures, this excerpt is incredibly resonant. For those unfamiliar with or uninterested in investigating the roots of his practice, it is in these moments that the writing fails to provide much purchase for entry. However, that is the gambit that Shimoda made by adopting this incredibly rich praxis. Overall, I found such moments to be anomalous, and do think that there is enough in the work to sustain interest throughout for newcomers to Shimoda’s work.
Given his approach to poetry, it is therefore fitting that Shimoda’s three “blurbers” are Tomaz Salamun, CA Conrad, and Dorothea Lasky—three poets whose work tend more towards the intuitive spiritual/magical rather than reasoned rational. Conrad, in particular, confronts the symbolic ordering of experience through his somatic poetics and seeks to engage and channel its energies. That his work also sparkles with wit and humor generally helps to leaven any moments of potential skepticism between reader and text. With Shimoda’s work, the writing is more instantaneous and convulsive, and the terms of his engagement are of a much graver cast. As such, Shimoda conducts an intensely personally necessary poetics, and to embrace his work requires our full immersion.