Brandon Shimoda: O Bon

Review by Sarah Richards Graba

(Litmus Press, 2011)

Each time you reread the words in Brandon Shimoda’s O Bon, something different arises. Unlike Lily Hoang’s Changing, in which reading the end helped to first approach the book, O Bon should be read straight through once, then again with the nutrients from the concluding author’s note to influence the reading. One should come to O Bon with a sense of confusion, allowing the reactions to emerge. It is because of this conviction that I hesitate to write this review. Perhaps read the book first, then come and read this review.

O Bon asks a lot of its reader—not so much in regard to form but in the intensity of image and feeling that comes with the words on the page. While Shimoda certainly uses unusual syntax and line breaks in his poetry, contributing to a sense of disorientation, what is truly challenging in reading O Bon are the waves of image upon image. And these images are at once beautiful and disgusting:

bright, moistened
lips, chest
billowing on a limb…

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

fresh skin hangs from a low branch by the eye-holes

wet, compressible roots
an abraded neck, still warm…

Shimoda’s image-heavy verse merges the beauty of nature with disturbing forms of tragedy and horror, creating the sublime. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Shimoda divulges that O Bon began with a ghost story: the ghost of his grandfather appearing to him, though “not a ghost / but a man of ash,” an act that Shimoda interprets as a charge to tell his story, “an order of stewardship over his life.” And so as we read the poetry, we are haunted—not only by Midori Shimoda’s ghost, but also by the Hiroshima bombing and its victims, by the voices in Japanese internment camps, by Brandon Shimoda’s own generational trauma.

In many ways, this book is an attempt to resolve that trauma, to complete an incomplete process. In an interview with Andy Fitch for The Conversant, Shimoda states, “When we try to deal with an historical event, this event itself remains incomplete…. What happened was I felt I’d started to translate his voice or his incomplete experience.” However, Shimoda acknowledges that perhaps this trauma can never be resolved, that in fact we live an experience that is perpetually incomplete: “I have the sense that nothing that happens happens completely. No true moment exists…. There seemed to be something even he didn’t know, even he didn’t have access to, in the same sense that…we don’t have full ownership over this moment. Then that translation experience would disappear and I couldn’t recover it any way.”

So why, then, do we attempt this recovery? For Shimoda, the answer may lie in poetry: “[P]oetry, for me, can enter a speculative or subterranean or ethereal space, can begin to understand what happened or what’s happening.” While still recognizing that the incomplete process of living can never be fully completed, Shimoda hints that poetry can at least begin to lend understanding to these experiences by creating a different sort of space, a space that doesn’t rely on linear or coherent thought but that can transcend it in order to reach a better understanding.

It is with this sense of incoherence that one enters the world of O Bon. Most readers will not know what the Obon Festival or the Bon Odori dance are. There is no direct mention of the Hiroshima bombing or the Japanese internment camps in the US. Shimoda’s poetry gives no indication that it is in fact intertextual, borrowing from FBI files and recordings, books about Japan and Japanese mythology, a Kobayashi film, texts on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his own parents’ recollections of the day he was born. While he does eventually give credit to all these texts in the author’s note (functioning almost as a narrative bibliography), the text of the poetry itself makes no distinction between “poetry” and “film” or “recording” and “outside text,” meshing literary device and historical document, poetic interpretation and government-owned audio. Among the sources for this book is Shimoda’s own experience of the Obon Festival as a young child, an experience of being “decontextualized, in a foreign county, through a language not my own, at night, surrounded by thousands of strangers.” O Bon is, in part, an attempt to access this moment for the reader, to place us in that space of incoherence and confusion, which may allow for greater understanding to occur. Shimoda says, “I imagine a reader’s experience resembles my own, in that I come at this book with lots of holes in my understanding of what actually happens…. What I’ll imagine creating, in a book like this, is an analogous moment in which some other youthful presence can wander and sense a similar terror.”

This terror drifts throughout the book as we encounter the Corpse Eater and Hoichi the Earless, two mythical figures that shift in and out of variance with the text. At some points, we merely observe these characters, while at other times we are, in fact, the Corpse Eater:

The tastelessness of flesh
upon a ravaged tongue the taste
of flesh to an eroding brain
buds on a ravaged tongue

the removal of the tongue

There is also the appearance and reappearance of the flash: the flash of Midori Shimoda’s camera, capturing a moment in time; the flash of the Hiroshima bomb. A large O appears over several pages of poems, then at the bottom of the pages. An O of an explosion, a flash of light; or perhaps the O of the opened mouth frozen in surprise, the scream or the howl. And there is the body memory of being on the bridge during the Obon Festival, a time when ancestors’ ghosts return and must be appeased, the Bon Odori dance causing us to dangerously sway over the water. This illuminates the radiating points of the body, speaking through images of trees and waves.

And while there is terror here, there is also immense sadness. The sometimes awkward ruptures in syntax when a line of poetry breaks leaves us hanging in midair, in the empty white space of the page. A sense of longing for what is gone: the way we are haunted. There are moments when a block of text runs, italicized, at the bottom of a page, whispering across the landscape like fog. And then it is gone. The tension between the ashen flash of terror and the intimate murmur of sadness plays out through the book, over and over again, between sections, between poems, between lines. A few poems are written in a strange hybrid of columns and rows, allowing for multiple ways of reading, allowing the words to wash over you repetitively, each time with a different reaction. In this example, there are two Japanese characters at the top, which may indicate that these are two separate poems. However, the placement on the page allows the poems to be read together in varying ways:

                                                                      a country
of magnificent distances                                              is Hell
as bright as                                                 who he says he is
frail, but nature can feel                     appearances can feel
can say I do
not want to go back                 I wish they would give me
a gun                             in sensitivity
a woman

O Bon is one in a series of books that focus on Shimoda’s concerns, on familial history—his  family history, specifically: The Alps (Flim Forum Press, 2008), The Girl Without Arms (Black Ocean, 2011), and Portuguese (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2013). That this story spans many books, that there is in fact no true ending to the story, only adds to that incomplete gesture: an attempt to complete it, but never doing so. It reminds me of Craig Santos Perez, writing from texts, acknowledging that everything is an excerpt, “always eluding the closure of completion.” In Shimoda’s work, there are landing places, places one can rest for a moment, places to dig into; but then we must continue on, for the journey that is this history, that is this trauma, that is this haunting, that is this body: it is not complete. Will not complete. And so we keep reading.