Book Reviews, Recent

Dreaming the Living and the Dead: On Brandon Shimoda’s Hydra Medusa

by Philip Sorenson | Contributing Writer

Hydra Medusa
Brandon Shimoda
Nightboat Books, 2023

Last May, on the 125th anniversary of the court case that established birthright citizenship, Donald Trump reaffirmed his plans to end this constitutional protection. Trump’s promise to revoke birthright citizenship, to further advance or entrench the United States’ white supremacist project is, to be sure, unsurprising. It is clear to me—and, probably, to you—that the state’s guarantee of rights is also a guarantee of the state’s ability to revoke those rights. Thus, our humanity becomes a legal fiction when that humanity is transformed into a citizenry. Of course, a citizenry is, ever always, exclusionary, raced, surveilled, and distributed. As Brandon Shimoda writes in his latest collection, Hydra Medusa, “Xenophobia is a handmaiden of citizenship, and an essential qualification of Americanism. Americanism is not a virtue, but a malignancy.” Americanism-as-cancer comes as a necessary consequence of our radioactivity, our supermassive violence, and our embodied inheritance. It’s a curse. In Hydra Medusa, Shimoda centers these themes while turning from poetry to prose, dream to memory, between the present and the past. His book remains ever keyed to questions of the self in relation to the state and that self as an historical subject within the state. The American state, for Shimoda, “is, in essence, a rapidly and relentlessly expanding graveyard.” It is a place haunted by the “reinvigorated specter of concentration camps.”

While the state seeks border control, Shimoda’s poetry engages with dreams, memories and letters, poems and prose, allowing each to turn into the other, eroding borders. For example, Hydra Medusa’s untitled opening and concluding sections recount lyrical image-rich dreams. These sections feel as much like records of the poet’s dreaming as they do cooperative dreaming exercises, which I felt pulled into as if I were dreaming alongside Shimoda. Each of these poems begins with the clause “I had a dream last night . . .”: “I had a dream last night that I was floating, face up, like a corpse in a coffin . . . down a long, low-ceilinged hallway . . .” These dream-poems persistently express the kinds of category confusions common to dreams. The confusions are phenomenal or synesthetic (“I had a dream last night that a rainbow was burning”) and they are metaphysical, relating to inherence or equivalence or definition (“The toilets were medieval dentist chairs” or “the earth will become the moon”). These category violations seem then to be subversions, making fuzzy the borders around knowing. 

The dreams of the first section are followed by a long poem, “The Desert,” which is a landscape also explored by Shimoda in The Desert (Song Cave, 2018). Here, that landscape may or may not be a dream. The tone of this section, nonetheless, is decidedly dreamy, and so the poem is folded into a space of not-quite a dream: 

The mountain was, except for mounted cameras
drones over the high, claustrophobic horizon,
and small black bushes, bare

We were passing through 
what westerners believed 
was the epicenter of death . . .

Memory, dream, witness, living and dead—all these elements become confused in Hydra Medusa. It is as if the world were being fed into dreams or the dreams fed outward. Therefore, while Shimoda’s oneiric blurring contests the circumscribing political state, the poet also recognizes that this dreaming occurs within that state. Small surveillance cameras (“weaponized mosquito[s]”) worm through the gaps in walls, from the state and into your dreams. 

This world of total surveillance, mass death, and ecological collapse is surely sinister and uncanny, but Shimoda’s categorical transgressions are, ultimately, less invested in strangeness as such. The poet is more invested in descent, ancestry, our relationship to the past, and the past’s relationship to us. Dreams, like letters or memories or photographs, can resurrect the dead, and the dead arrive throughout this book. Sometimes these arrivals are familial, personal: “I had a dream last night that my grandmother, on her deathbed, pulled me close . . .” or “I had a dream last night that I was sleeping on the top bunk of a bunk bed. Etel was on the ladder, touching my foot.” Shimoda has previously written about his friendship and correspondence with Etel Adnan, and a brief passage from a letter sent to Shimoda from her begins the book. The letter reads, “The desert shimmers at moments as if it owned the whole planet, and we needed it to be so.” Layers of spectrality, of communication, exchange of letters and dreams, of communication between the presently living and those absent through death: transmission. Or, to say it more plainly, this book is explicitly concerned with ancestry and ancestors. It is concerned with debt. 

What debt do we owe the dead? This question, or the question of ancestry/transmission, is expressed by Shimoda within the context of malignant Americanism: “What if the expression of blood from a corpse was the genesis of a curse in which a murderer inherited the blood of the corpse they produced? . . . These questions come to mind as I contemplate the intransigent, intractable void that hovers a shadow over the ruins of Japanese American incarceration.” What do we owe our progenitors—physical, intellectual, spiritual—what do we owe to those who gave us to ourselves, and how does that “owing” shift when the making is a making through harm? How much harm is done by way of Americanism? Too much. Certainly, Shimoda focuses these questions on Japanese internment and anti-Asian violence, but that focus extends outwards, drawing clear parallels with the ongoing dehumanization and murder at the United States’ southern border. For example, in “The Descendant,” Shimoda correlates the murder in 1942 of Toshio Kobata and Hirota Isomura by Private Clarence Burleson with the murder of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez by border patrol agent Lonnie Swartz. These murders are murders by the state of people deemed non-people because of “citizenship,” because “White American blood is cult. White American blood is curse.” Shimoda goes on to say that a “curse is to fate as pollen is to a flower,” which creates a tension between causes and effects, the synchronic and diachronic. “Burleson,” he writes, “was already cursed. . . . [T]he curse predated Burleson’s birth.”

That tension, I think, is the tension of time and of the underworld. With history, our crimes pass out of time and become the inheritance of those who came before us. Shimoda wonders, in turn, if the dead will have to carry this burden: “Won’t the burden of the curse fall on the dead”? He answers in the negative. The two rooms (upper and lower, living and dead, time and timelessness) are part of a kind of fluid exchange. We are going to where we have already been. There is an ongoing, perhaps eternal, co-mingling of the living with the dead. Shimoda calls it a “karmic fluidity.” The “curse,” the debt, “does not flow in only one direction, but is shared.” 

We are mirages, he suggests. In the wake of Covid lockdowns, Shimoda describes how like an underworld or uncanny space he found the empty city: “the people are the mirage, from which I cannot discount my family or myself.” Or, as he writes elsewhere, “as if in a movie / set in a graveyard.” We are all going to go; we are already there. What do we owe ourselves when we arrive? What do we owe already? In dreams, we might receive our current balance: “Because it feels like dreams have perfect timing.”

Philip Sorenson  is the author of three poetry collections: Of Embodies (Rescue Press, 2012), Solar Trauma (Rescue Press, 2018)and Work Is Hard Vore (Schism Neuronics, 2020).