I had a recurring nightmare when I was young, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years old, that I have been struggling, since then, to describe. It involved black lines, sand, and falling. It was bright. Sometimes a banister was mounted on a bright wall, sometimes there were bright stairs, sometimes a baby carriage, no baby. A baby carriage falling down stairs? A lot of black lines against a bright background, going in every direction. Sand, too much sand. Speed; everything was racing, getting stuck. Quicksand? The nightmare was black lines, getting entangled, engulfed, ensnared, in black lines, then falling—into sand, bright, getting stuck. It was and was not all of that. By nightmare I mean: I woke up screaming, inconsolable. For years. Seven years?
What is the difference between a dream and a nightmare? A nightmare is a predatory dream. Predatory? It turns the sleeper into its prey. Prey? The sleeper survives, but is burdened. So in that sense, survives, but is changed. For the worse? Is it different than a shadow attaching? Shadows are not so bad. Shadows are not bad at all. Even when they attach? They add dimension, and one can hide in dimension. From who, or from what? The one that is hiding?
At first I thought mare was related to horse. I wanted it to be related to a dark sea on the moon. But mare is related to incubus, a male demon, which is related to incubate, to sit upon eggs.
Black lines, sand, falling. I felt like I was suffocating.
It is said that recurring dreams are indications of unresolved conflicts in one’s life. But if the recurring dreams—or nightmares—begin when one is very young, too young to have lived into the possibility of resolution, then could it be said that recurring dreams are indications of unresolved conflicts in someone else’s life?
As Lafcadio Hearn writes in his essay “Nightmare-Touch”:
Elements of primeval fears—fears older than humanity—doubtless
enter into the child-terror of darkness. But the more definite fear
of ghosts may very possibly be composed with inherited results of
dream-pain,—ancestral experience of nightmare.1
Here is a question I often ask myself: What would my grandfather (who I mentioned in The Afterlife, Part 1) make of the fact that I have written—and have been writing—so much, and for so many years—about him? My grandfather tried his best to spare me from what he believed was a history too burdensome to share. 2 The paradox is that by sparing me—or withholding from me—his and our family’s burdensome history, he was propagating the burden, passing it directly to me. I was left to proliferate questions in the void. The beginning of that proliferation, and the headlong hopefulness attached to being answered—by a voice or even an echo—was the beginning, for me, of poetry.
Here is one of the first poems I wrote about Japanese American incarceration. Maybe also the opening remark in an attempt to think through the question of what my grandfather might make of the fact that I was writing about his life. I wrote it at night, in bed, in a second floor apartment in Missoula, Montana, down the road from where my grandfather was incarcerated in a Department of Justice prison under suspicion of being a spy for Japan. 3 I wrote it in a black sketchbook. I had taken my glasses off, my face was buried in a pillow, I could not see what I was writing, I fell quickly to asleep.
I have not looked at this poem in years. And yet it is hidden inside almost everything I have written since. So maybe I have only been looking at this poem. It is not a particularly good poem, but I remember thinking, when I wrote it—or when I woke up from having written it—that it satisfied, in a sad, unfortunate way, everything I had to say, and that there was not, therefore, any real or compelling reason to keep pushing the subject of my grandfather’s incarceration—or Japanese American incarceration in general—through poetry. But it was not much of a thought, because it was not thinking. It was more the expression of solipsism—an inability, an incapacity. Everything I had to say, because I had nothing to say, because I was not writing, I was falling. 4
If poetry was offering me a way to extend my relationship with my grandfather, as well as with his death, what was it offering my grandfather? What was it offering him?
What was it offering?
What was it offering you? Anything? Anything?
A skin of sand covered the floor. 5
Book of sand, book of waiting,
of been...By which to begin,6
it is this black sand which roughs itself up on the hiccup of the abyss7
night, be careful, the sand-
with us two.8
draw the final line, the calm
of the heavy tomb —9
But again it
Book of sand, book
of salt, book of
water. . .10
void to the left void to the right, void the
words the silences. 11
I wrote my will here
my fingers moved slowly in the
hot sand 12
My grandfather, a photographer, worshipped the sun, my grandmother told me. He got sick when he was in his twenties, started worshipping the sun. Sick how? With what? It was around the same time that he started taking pictures. It is there, in his pictures: his subjects—people, places, things—surrounded by aureoles of light. Sometimes my grandfather, as if to re-enact his subjects from a lifetime ago, would stand in front of the sun, or maybe that was something only I could see. The aureole by which he was surrounded, in those moments, was the sun reaching his body, touching his body, then scattering everywhere. Then he was my subject. He also looked like he had come from the sun. Which made me his shadow. I did not want to step out from being his shadow, I wanted to go further into being his shadow. The sun would have to be brighter? He got smaller. After he died, and after he was cremated, he was fit into a bag, the bag fit into a box, the box fit into another bag, and he was flown across the continent, from North Carolina to Death Valley, CA. That is where my grandfather is now. Because he also worshipped the desert. The sand. Which is where I am too.
Around the time that I wrote “I cut your flesh,” I was reading poetry by—and writing a paper on—three Japanese American poets of the older generations, all of whom were incarcerated when they were young: Mitsuye Yamada, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Janice Mirikitani. I was also enthralled by Aimé Césaire,15 Paul Celan,16 Myung Mi Kim, Nathaniel Mackey, and Stéphane Mallarmé. 17 The enthrallment was instinctive, less intellectual. I could not then—as I cannot now—say anything particularly insightful about what these poets and their poetry were doing, nor was I inventive or stealthy enough to incorporate even the flashes of my enthrallment into my own poetry without producing—however excitedly—the most inorganic imitations.
I was introduced to Myung Mi Kim by one of my professors, Karen Volkman. Kim was the first Asian American poet to whom I was introduced while in graduate school; Commons was the first book of poetry. It was a strange and shameful revelation; I had become so used to being fed, and accepting, the fruits—especially the rotten if not more poisonous fruits—of Anglo poets, that I took for granted that if I was going to have relationships with non-Anglo poets, especially Asian American poets, those relationships would have to be formed outside the bounds of academia. They would have to be fugitive—trysts—which sounds exciting, and is, but is also lonesome, and what I already had. It was a shameful revelation partly because I had expected otherwise. Myung Mi Kim was not introduced to me in class though; Commons was not on the syllabus or part of the curriculum. Karen and I were in her office; she mentioned Myung Mi Kim based, I think, on what we must have been talking about, the questions I had, the questions she had, and on what I was writing, or wanted to write. Commons had come out two years earlier, and begins:
In what way names were applied to things. Filtration. Not every word that has been
applied, still exists. Through proliferation and differentiation. Airborn. Here, this speck
and this speck you missed.
Numbers in cell division. Sphere of debt. The paradigm’s stitchery of unrelated points.
What escapes like so much cotton batting. The building, rather, in flames. Does flight
happen in an order.
Dates to impugn and divulge. The laws were written on twelve tablets of bronze which
were fastened to the rostra. Trembling hold. Manner of variation and shift. Vacillation
hung by tactile and auditory cues.
Those which are of foreign origin. Those which are of forgotten sources. Place and body.
Time and action. The snow falls. A falling snow. A fallen snow. A red balloon and a
blackwinged bird at semblance of crossing in a pittance of sky.
I read Commons, then Under Flag and Dura, while writing the poems that eventually became my graduate thesis. I was enthralled by the exacting ledger-like quality of the book, by its granular recuperation of memory—like sliding a sharp, steady nail beneath the skin of the documents meant to organize the obscurity of history, and by the energy that was released—subtly, almost surreptitiously—every time I opened it.
A dream book, in that sense—one whose permission I might have fantasized when I was young and drawing lines and faces and lopsided figures and arrows and graphs and writing names and words just coming into reach, on the pages of a spiral-bound notebook I kept on top of a garbage can; a book that seemed to contain everything, but in fragments, forced into cohesion by a ubiquitous and ultimately unlocatable force. And a book that enacted the turning inside-out of the world to reveal its soul as that of the violenced and erased, the fought back, the fighting forward. I felt, selfishly and absurdly, that Commons had been written for me. No, not for me, but for a version of myself that Commons was offering to help me discover and live into.
The feeling was affirmed when I reached the moment in Commons when Kim quotes, without attribution, from a book that I was, at the time, obsessed with, and which I imagined—selfishly and absurdly—that no one else was reading: Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, a publication by The Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I do not remember the lines though, and that part of the book is not on Google Books. What are the lines? Do they exist? Am I making them up?
The rivers in Hiroshima have tides. When the tide goes out—into the Inland Sea— the rivers are mud. The mud is the province of heron. I saw them (the rivers, the heron) for the first time when I was ten. On a family vacation. I remember Tokyo, Shimoda (the jellyfish), Kyoto, but especially Hiroshima. We went to the Peace Memorial Museum. I have forgotten most of what I saw, except for the wax mannequins of a mother and her child holding their arms out in front of them, their skin dripping off the ends of their fingers. In my memory, they were near the entrance to the sprawling exhibition of atrocity and mass death, so visitors had to confront them first, and be greeted, and be acknowledged and held accountable by their greeting, so that everything that was experienced afterwards was imprinted with the image, or the afterimage, of the suffering they were made to represent.
The mother and child have since been removed. Some people, including hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), likened the figures to toys. Others said that they scared children. Children are not the ones who deserve to be scared, although being scared is hardly commensurate with the trauma suffered by the mother and child in real life. Being scared still offers a space to prepare for what is, or what might be, coming.
Because isolations occur
Uncover the ear
To give form to what is remote, castigated18
Sometimes I think that poetry is, like a prehistoric glacial lake, what already was, and that where we are now—and what we are doing—is living in the bowl of what has long since evaporated. Or maybe the tides have gone out, and are not coming back. That is what I thought about poetry back then too—fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years ago. Poetry was an archeological pursuit, or required some kind of archeological process. Which was then—because I was, or attempting to become, a poet—a matter of wandering (on foot) and excavating (in mind) the ruins of distressed, haunted earth. Which also meant: putting myself down, on the ground; lying down, face down; trading my eyes for the insects and roots; lying on my back, staring at the sky; drawing a string between the roots and the sky; snapping the string; recording the vibrations; trying not to fall asleep; trying to stay on the edge of being awake and falling asleep; falling asleep. I believed that the earth retained and preserved the voices of those whose fate had been unjustly and violently meted out, more specifically messages from those voices that had gone—by arrest, and eventual departure—unexpressed and unrealized. The messages existed, like poetry—and like the prehistoric glacial lake—in the form of untranslated absence.
As I was highlighting “I cut your flesh” to copy and paste it into this essay, I discovered that there was more to the poem than those eight words. The poem was, in fact, an erasure of another poem I had written—also at night, in bed, and so on; it must have been, because it is the same poem—about which I had, until now, completely forgotten, and which I have—even looking at it now—no memory. Here is the original poem, from which the eight words were drawn out:
Three years ago this May, my partner and I drove from where we live in Tucson to Dragoon, which is a small town, not even a town, outside of Benson, Arizona. We went to visit the Triangle T Ranch, where, during WWII, 23 staff members of the Japanese consulate in Honolulu were incarcerated. They were arrested minutes after the attack on Pearl Harbor, detained in the consulate for ten days, taken by ship to San Diego, by train to Tucson, then by bus or truck or car (I am not sure) to the Triangle T, although they had no idea where that was, or where they were, as all the signs had been removed. The story is of course much longer than this, but for now, here is one thing we saw when we visited:
Black ants pouring out of the desert sand. In nightmare numbers, with nightmare velocity.
With the exception of the Consul General and his family, all of the Japanese prisoners were crowded in horse stalls. One of the stalls is still standing. Another is a sand-covered concrete slab. Black ants were pouring out of a hole in the sand-covered slab. Their numbers were doubled by their shadows, every ant and every shadow pouring out as if being birthed (ejected) from a depthless hole. What was especially nightmarish about it, was that the shadows were moving faster than the ants, as if the ants were being compelled by their shadows, and were trying to keep up with them. I remember that. And I remember that the sound of thousands of ants and thousands of their shadows pouring out of the depthless hole, was the sound, in that moment, of the sun.
A note on the images: All of the images were made on MS Word between 2008-2010. I began drawing them on days or weeks or months when my relationship with poetry was strained and/or estranging. It became a practice, then: to draw my way back to writing. The drawings originally accompanied a series of poems titled A Giant Asleep in Fortune’s Spindle, which are now mostly floating in space. Karen Volkman selected five of the Giant poems for publication in Boston Review (January 2009). Her introduction begins: In the annals of the Great Restlessness, Brandon Shimoda traces characters of a turbulent disquiet: these ruptured silences sound expanses and pour out insomniac rains. The rains are fumes or phantoms, diffusing poisons. There is no purity in this dreaming ...
1. Do poets love them?
2. I’ve recently encountered cicadas in the poems of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Tina Chang, Farnoosh Fathi, Valerie Hsiung, Pura López-Colomé, Farid Matuk, Wong May, Ed Roberson, Alison C. Rollins, George Seferis, Chimako Tada, Shuntaro Tanikawa, Catherine Wagner, to name only a few (poets and cicadas).
3. Koë ni mina / Naki-shimoté ya— / Sémi no kara! English translation by Hearn.
4. It just occurred to me that “I am the fence” sounds like “I am the arm” from Twin Peaks.
5. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Farewell to Manzanar.
6. Nathaniel Mackey, Tonu Soy, School of Udhra
7. Aimé Césaire, Nursery Rhyme (tr. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith).
8. Paul Celan, from Timehalo, tr. Pierre Joris.
9. Stéphane Mallarmé, A Tomb for Anatole (tr. Paul Auster)
10. Nathaniel Mackey, Tonu Soy, School of Udhra
11. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee.
12. Mitsuye Yamada, “Desert Run,” Camp Notes.
13. Paul Celan, Matiere de Bretagne, tr. Joachim Neugroschel
14. Dark sea on the moon. A shadow attaching. To sit upon someone else’s eggs?
15. Collected Poetry (tr. Clayton Eshleman and Annette J. Smith)
16. Poems (tr. Michael Hamburger)
17. A Tomb for Anatole (tr. Paul Auster)
18. Myung Mi Kim, Commons.