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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Brandon Shimoda’s Hydra Medusa

Brandon Shimoda
Hydra Medusa
(Nightboat Books, 2023)

Brandon Shimoda is a mystic poet. Hydra Medusa is an otherworldly book. By that I mean it is wholly of this world. The poems are small rituals that unmake and remake our world into something it actually resembles. This resemblance is not what you see; the feeling snakes into your entrails and refuses to leave. If you pick up one of his poems and turn it around in your hands, it will visit your dreams. I am speaking from personal experience. I can think of no higher praise. His materials are flowers, garbage, photographs, prison camps, javelina, old women, walks, shrines, ruins, candied apples, letters, deer, pure color, the desert beneath your feet—impressed in all their three dimensions on the page. Which is another way to say: this is a book of shadows and mirrors. Doors held open for the spirits of ancestors, for the living to shiver at the touch of the dead. And vice versa. In this sense, the poems are graves.

The Grave on the Wall is the title of this book as well as all the books,” wrote Shimoda in his prior book. In that book, the grave is a photograph of his grandfather, Midori, in a bra and a slip, incarcerated by his adopted country at Fort Missoula in 1943. “He exists at the beginning of what and why I write, as I exist at the end of what he endured,” writes Shimoda. And now, in this, his latest book, the grave is Hydra Medusa. It is not a contradiction to say a grave changes form, name, location and remains the same. A grave has many heads and the power to petrify. At the end of World War II, the United States erected what historian Greg Grandin calls “the first significant physical barrier” at the border with Mexico. “The fence’s posts and wire mesh had been recycled from internment camps that had been used to hold Japanese Americans.” The grave becomes, has become, is still becoming—the wall.

Hydra Medusa, written in Tucson between 2017–2020, in close proximity to the ongoing and programmatic incarceration of migrants and refugees at this country’s southern border, documents these overlapping realities of horror. Its poems, short talks, and catalogs of dreams do not so much resuscitate the past as pierce the thin scrim of the present to reveal the past as something breathing, lurking, pawing in the room beside us. We are here and now and not here and not now in traumatic nauseating harmony:

to sink through the ground of America
is to meet the legions
who have been buried    fall through them

lapse    underground,

commingle, in its original arrangement,    The world

above, the world we think we love is
scar tissue

This is also the terrain of The Desert, likewise written in Tucson, of which Hydra Medusa is a natural extension: “a landscape of coordinated disappearance.” But nothing really disappears, not for those possessed of vision—

what was the seeing after all
but transposing one’s latent identity
onto a pattern

to venture its corrosion

—or for those who read Shimoda’s poetry. Formally, the poems comprise brief, left-justified lines of extraordinarily vivid imagery, layered with moments of incantatory repetition. The line ends are often unpunctuated; other norms of punctuation, spacing, and capitalization are broken to pattern the breath (Shimoda’s ear is a wand) and release the smoke of meaning. The desert is defined by its space and aridity. The lack of moisture permits all kinds of traces—bones, adobe, mirages, shell casings, clifftop altars—to persist far longer than in other environments. Hydra Medusa makes a pilgrimage to these remnants; many of these remnants reside in plain sight. Part of this project’s revelation is that these remnants are everywhere. Nowhere escapes the felt presence of death. Or of life. Or of violence. Or of love. Our past selves coalesce in prior worlds—all around us. In Barrio Anita. At the Mission San Xavier del Bac. In the car at Eegee’s. On the road up Mount Lemmon, first paved by prison labor. The wall is never merely so; fruit grows in its alcoves. These are poems that, to steal a phrase from The Desert, puncture “the medium-heavy mindlessness of living.” They also puncture the wall. This porousness is terrible, primordial:

bodies remember
with their teeth, their toes, ancient seas
that evaporated before they were made

on both sides of the wall

Or, again, in terms of the ground:

the dirt was marked

with pores
the grandparents breathed through

Elsewhere in this collection, we walk the lawn beneath the bell on top of the Student Union at the University of Arizona, in remembrance of the USS Arizona, sunk in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which tolls seven times at 12:07pm on the third Wednesday of every month. “Everyone who steps foot on the grass becomes one of the distinguished dead, or a vessel for their suggestive resurrection,” writes Shimoda. This site is the subject of one of the handful of prose-talks, or essays, that appear in the book, which provide a historical-theoretical counterpoint to the poems (without subtracting a dram from their mystery). Shimoda is stunning in this mode. His sense of cadence and tone are just as potent in prose, combining the speculative ballet of Roland Barthes with the precision imagery (always, always: the imagery) of Yasunari Kawabata. The first quote is an example of the former, the second of the latter:

Anyone within earshot is incorporated into, and organized by, the bell’s
nostalgia. Subliminality is not a modification of truth, but a testament to the ways
in which we are being infected by, and made to worship and perform, the national

The classroom was in a small shed with a mossy roof and sawdust on the floor.
Ropes hung from a winch mounted on the ceiling. One boy with alert, worried
eyes reminded me of a salamander I had seen, years ago, in forsythia.

Other prose passages cast curses, examine the substance of poetry itself, animate the ghosts of Pearl Harbor. Still others are occasions for dreams or meditations on the nature of ancestors, polyvocal collages in which the real and imagined voices of Shimoda’s friends, family, and correspondents share space with his own thought and research. The idea of “postmemory,” specifically as articulated by the scholar Marianne Hirsch—those “experiences … transmitted to [the next generation] so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right”—proves a significant unifying principle. It is the landscape, as much as anything, that bleeds these transmissions. Amidst all this, it feels important to note the presence of real quiet, little holes in the white space of the page in which words, thinned to wisps of stems and tails, can still emit heat:

not home, not sick
there is no

one home

I experienced Hydra Medusa slowly, on the train every morning over the course of a week. The windows on this train are very scratched up and catch the light and cause it to glitter. I like to sit backwards and watch the point of view expand. Sometimes this induces the sensation of nausea. Sometimes, if the sun strikes the window at the proper angle, the view explodes into a shoal of reflections and I am forced to squint, or turn away. When the train goes below a bridge or passes through a thicket of trees or beside the face of a warehouse encased in shadow; when, for whatever reason, the light outside the train diminishes, the window becomes a semi-transparent mirror that reflects the train’s interior and, for a moment, I can see behind me, inside the train, through the train, even through the windows on the train’s far side, which reveal a view in partial light. This too is Hydra Medusa. The book is a medium, through which one alternately falls and is rebuffed, descends, meets death, transforms, transported to a realm of apparitions. It is a book that refracts and multiplies one’s sight, opens windows that lead onto other windows—around you, below you, through you, behind.


Sean McCoy

Sean McCoy is a writer from Arizona. He received his MFA in literary arts from Brown University and now works for the Quivira Coalition in New Mexico.


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