‘Like That’ by Matthew Yeager and ‘Evening Oracle’ by Brandon Shimoda
When you open a book of contemporary poetry, how many poems do you expect to see? How long do you expect them to be? Do you expect, as a loose norm, 25 to 40 self-contained poems, perhaps interrupted by one blob of prose? Do you expect, instead, a book-length project, one where the lyrical, the expository and the critical, the long and the short, the verse and the prose, segments in it support an obvious, consistent goal?
What would you say to “a book of five or six long poems, and that’s it,” as Matthew Yeager describes his own first volume, Like That? Would you demand that the five or six have much in common, other than the loose pentameter rhythm that Yeager prefers?
If one of the poems took up more than half the book and consisted entirely of questions, would you allow your response to that poem to overwhelm, or overwrite, your response to the other five? Would you read the questions—60 pages of them—all the way through in one sitting? Would you rather put the book down, pick it up again, and graze your way through? If you found a series of more or less personal questions, all of them addressed to “you,” would you answer them? Would you quote them to your friends?
Did Yeager write that poem—entitled “A Jar of Balloons, or The Uncooked Rice”—in one sitting, or over weeks, or did it take years? How much do you think he revised?
Is this passage typical? “Can you still touch your toes? As a child,/ were you able to turn a cartwheel?/ Are you hard on people? What is/ the deepest water in which you’ve been/ swimming?” What about this one?
As a driver, are you aggressive or
defensive? Have you ever fasted? When
naked, are you capable of forgetting
you are naked? Do you ever think,
‘Yep, this will make a good rag?’
First job? Worst job? Current job?
Is this way of writing best described as a stunt, or as innovation, or as a reductio ad absurdum for one way of composing poetry, or instead as a tour de force?
Since it permits—indeed, almost requires—us to infer or imagine local connections (three questions in a row concern physical skills; three invoke childhood memory; etc.), and yet defeats any attempt to find a story arc or an argument in the whole, do the questions in “A Jar” resemble the New Sentences that Ron Silliman and others described, and created, in the avant-garde poetry of the 1980s? Through its very length, does “A Jar” also demonstrate (as Silliman’s long poems may) the overall resistance to comprehension, the bangs-head-against-wall effect, that the scholar Sianne Ngai has named “stuplimity”? Or does it push back against the idea that long poems ought to be difficult to decipher, even prima facie incomprehensible, since its building blocks are questions almost anyone in the United States right now could answer or ask? “Are you/ a person that thinks he can fix people?/ Can you?”
Does Yeager’s succession of questions, like a never-ending procession of boxcars, or like the procession of phrases in Stein or Beckett, ask us to slow down, or speed up, or reconsider our perception of time? If you read it all, will you know why it ends where it ends? “Which questions will you remember? Which/ will you mention?” Do you think those questions sound like the end?
Will this obviously memorable poem—this trick, this nonce form, this amusement—overshadow the other five poems in Like That, four of which I like? Does the investigation of scale and accumulation and memory in “A Jar” reach the same conclusions as the much more conventional narrative poem “A Big Ball of Foil in a Small NY Apartment,” which describes the assembly of the titular ball in phrases that might also describe a poetic career? “Why was he doing what he was?/ Why was he filling his apartment, his mind, with foil?” Does the anecdotal poem “Tap Water,” on its surface about a romance, also investigate memory and triviality, addressed (as one divagation notes) to “the bizarre and circumstantial/ choices, whims, accidents, etc. that have ping-ponged you/ into the particular mental situation you presently are in”? Does it matter that a good editor would have cut that phrase in half, had it occurred in journalistic prose?
Does Yeager know—does he enjoy reading—the medieval poets, from Chaucer to Hoccleve, who could pride themselves on copia, redundancy, sheer length, as a sign of energy, or a way to make the time go by? If you wanted to inhabit, for the length of eleven pages, the consciousness of the stranded, ice-bound and dying Henry Hudson, would you use repetition as a signal of desperation, or anxiety, or despair at “what may or may not be an impossible situation”? Is poetry, more generally, a way to use words in reaction to impossible situations, problems that don’t have literal solutions, cases where only trope, imagination, figurative language can do the job? Is there such a thing as “a real job/ that a poet can almost do, and still be a poet?” Would it involve, or resemble, the catering job where Yeager or his protagonist received “$25-28 an hour to pour wine”? Could a more concise poet, one who made more demands on himself line by line by line, examine the passage of time, or the slow accumulation of small-scale anxieties, in the way that Yeager’s pages and layers of stichic verse do?
If it’s at once exhilarating, and maddening, to watch Yeager build up those pages, those undramatic monologues, those layers, it’s neither exhilarating, nor frustrating, to move through the book-length accumulation of small forms, digressions, stray thoughts, journal entries, and lyrical self-quotations that comprise Brandon Shimoda’s Evening Oracle: the book is a serious effort, but it’s also a relief, and an occasion for meditation, and a delight. In fact, it feels almost like travel, and that’s no accident. All the poems in verse were (so Shimoda says) “originally handwritten at night before sleep in the beds of friends and strangers in Japan,” where Shimoda took an extended journey. The rest of the book holds “prose passages… from emails and letters to and from friends and family.”
In other words, Evening Oracle is a prosimetric, impressionistic travelogue, a hybrid form with a long heritage in Japan (Basho, for instance), and it presents a Japanese American poet with roots in an American post-avant-garde pursuing tones and effects that could seem—to readers of English who do not read Japanese—quintessentially or conventionally “Japanese.” The lines feel like brushstrokes, like watercolors, like single takes on resonant moments, many of them melancholy, studied, or calm. “Mother and Son” sums up:
We went to Japan
To find the source of our restlessness
In an aesthetic of rest
Enshrined in malnourished love and hate
Shimoda’s descriptive verse has the same one-take, or plein air, feel:
One dreams of living above a bathhouse
In a snow-covered field
With a procession of white animals
An uncanny flame
Later, Shimoda and a friend visit “newlyweds” and encounter “two trees” under moonlight:
Will they stay together forever?
The moon traverses
The far side of the contract
The sun displaces
The knot growing thicker
The language gets just challenging enough, just cognitively alive enough (trees have no contracts, but newlyweds do) so that it never resembles the blandly pretty japonaiserie that other English-language poets have practiced since the end of the nineteenth century; there’s always thought here, and observation, and an intelligent shadow of regret. Shimoda’s sketches and brushstrokes can also turn comic: “The spinach will grow/ Will be picked and eaten… The message is:/ I was living, I will live, I live.” (You go, spinach!)
The quick stanzas and balanced phrases (most avoid strong enjambments) point in a quite traditional way to the pathos of the unknowable, and to the fleetingness of everything, and to the persistence of youth in old age, old age in youth, the timeless in the timely. Sometimes they do so through traditional images—agricultural products, the moon; sometimes they do so through scenes a more traditional poet would never approach, as in “Kansai Rehabilitation”:
A young woman’s voice
Moves through an old man’s stomach
A hole will swallow
The young woman’s body
Two old women fold paper into lips and ears
The young woman’s voice
Folds theirs into flowers
The young woman’s hands on a white synthesizer
These artificially sustained bodies still belong squarely in the tradition of fading petals and twilight on snow; but that tradition needs to be made weird and new—otherwise we moderns, we who live in an era of feeding tubes and GarageBand, would have no way to respond in words to the facts that we grow old, and know we will grow old, and die.
Were Evening Oracle only its verse, its collection of as-if-improvised, or partly improvised, or perhaps wholly improvised, verse compositions (Shimoda does not say whether or how much he revised), the volume would be a series of beauties, and a beautiful tease. But the inset prose makes the book more complicated, more personal, stranger than that. Shimoda’s book—the whole book—responds to the aging and death of individuals in his own life, and to his family, and to his Japanese American inheritance: to read the whole book is to see him establishing some fertile relation to a Japan of the mind, to Japanese places and cultures, at the same time as he honors, and baffles himself by contemplating, individual forebears:
My grandmother wanted, wants, to be cremated, and for her ashes to be released over the ocean… Whenever I think about my “personal” history I realize I just need to keep changing the white cotton compresses on the wounds as they are saturated. Today… I felt the sort of aluminum leaves of the past like something difficult I had made that cut my fingers which distracted me from the gut wound. Facts are fake plants, the shape without the life, hard and made.
Is Evening Oracle a personal history? Is it a response to family history, to the often-erased, often-reconstructed traces of grand- or great-grandparents’ immigration? Does the whole book (rather than one prose passage) honor the life history of Shimoda’s admirable grandfather, who got an “exercise bike for his 80th birthday… and decided to travel around the world,” tracking “what country, the towns and cities, barren landscapes and seas” he could visit, were his bike mobile? Does Shimoda’s collection invite us to travel in the mind, or travel in language, as his grandfather traveled? Do its hypnopompic lyric gestures suggest that all travel is mental travel?
Is all travel mental travel, in which we imagine most of what we think we see, based on surprisingly minimal visual cues? Conversely, are even the most ruminative or abstract poems still forms of mental travel, as Shimoda—who told one interviewer, “Travel is writing. It is part of what it is for me”— suggests? Is sleep a form of travel? Do Shimoda’s brushstroke lines and hovering phrases highlight the ways in which—not just with this writing but with all writing, all human communication—we adumbrate, we fill in the gaps, we see what we yearn to see, or fear to see? Does this mysterious passage from “Todaiji” show that process at work?
A child grew to be a throng
The sun shone white upon the child’s faces
Only the sun could remember
Rubbing off the edge
Do all of us bring various “faces” to each day, and then leave most of what we brought behind?
Are poems like sunlight, illuminating new faces? Are they more like mirrors, showing us to ourselves? Is a series of poems like a series of personal questions, or a project that tries our patience, can reveal us to ourselves? Is a collection of poems more like Yeager’s giant ball of tinfoil— bright, shiny, mostly harmless, a way to pass the time? Are poems—or lyric poems— like damaged eyeglass lenses, able at once to reflect, and to clarify, and to distort? When Shimoda writes
A young woman wearing large glasses
With scratched lenses
Sees everything as through a rake
No end to chores
does that describe how you, too, see the world?