The Alps by Brandon Shimoda
According to the press’s website, Flim Forum “provides SPACE for emerging writers working in a variety of experimental modes.” Having previously seen Flim Forum’s anthologies Oh One Arrow and A Sing Economy, I am familiar with what they mean by space. Unlike many anthologies and journals that feature one or two pages by a single poet, Flim Forum allows space for lengthier works or more individual pieces, so readers are able to get a better sampling of each contributor’s work. This commitment to space has lent itself to the press’s first single-author publication, Brandon Shimoda’s The Alps.
Over-sized and heftier than typical single-volume poetry releases, The Alps uses its space well. There is a highly visual aspect to this book -- not just because of the visual poems that are included, but also in its incredible use of white space throughout. Marked by conciseness, the poems almost feel as if the words were carved into the page. Short lines and brief haiku-like poems (“every leaf / from somber wood // opens / the likeness of a grand defect”) take on an added weight from the vast blankness that surrounds them. There are even a number of entirely blank pages throughout -- perhaps giving room for the reader to pause before diving back in.
One section/poem “The Headmaidens and Bridesmen,” which is made up of twenty-five pieces, uses twenty-five blank images -- that is, blank square boxes placed directly in the middle of each page at the start of a new piece. A hole in the page. A window to look through or a mirror to reflect. Or, any box waiting to be filled by an image. With the exception of the few that have a title or a dedication that appears above the box, the only words on the page appear beneath it. With few words, Shimoda is able to capture stark images: “A circle of birds on a pond / of stone. Fence of water // Broken.” The poem then works as a caption for the empty image. The absent is present; the sense of something missing is there. The poems that accompany these squares are fragmentary and seemingly biographical, covering issues of family, identity, religion, and war:
irreconcilable on one side
still river house and town
At the conclusion of this section, the reader turns the page to find an actual image perfectly sized and aligned with the boxes, which is jarring after so many pages of emptiness in that space. The expectations have been reversed. At first, where one usually expects to see images, there are none. The reader grows accustomed to this only to be surprised by the appearance of an actual image where now the reader is expecting none.
The atypical layout may have some readers wondering about where a single poem starts and ends. For example, the first title page appears on the right, where one would expect it to, but the following poem begins on the following page on the left. I had initially thought “HOW will I ever find the scenery” was a section title, but maybe it is the title of the first poem. However, later poems seem to have titles at the top of the pages. Perhaps the title pages are dual-purposed, serving both as section titles and as the titles of the first poems to appear within those sections. (There is no table of contents to help in this matter.) And like other sections in the book, the first section also contains a number of blank pages; there is the title page, two poems, a blank page, a poem, a blank page, and then the title page at the start of a new section. This seems to be another way for Shimoda to actively engage the reader, either by challenging his or her expectations of the book, or by deliberately creating a moment of hesitation.
Shimoda effectively creates other jarring moments throughout this collection. By and large the diction is elevated or old-fashioned (speaking of maidens, using words like olde and childe), which reminds me of contemporaries Aaron McCollough and Michael Schiavo. However, there are moments where this romantic language bristles against crudeness. In the opening poem, “HOW will I ever find the scenery,” there is mention of swords touched to sea, a harlequin childe, gentle pork, bridal masks, and a wooden knife. The poem then ends: “I wish we were only— // O // While I squint is fucked at the border.”
In a few poems, text appears in two colors -- the main text of the poem appears like the other poems while at the bottom of the page there is subtext in a small grey font. There are other visual poems where language, instead of expanding or exploring more as an afterthought or footnote, breaks down. Some poems, like “Engagement,” contain fragments of words or sound. In “The Place Thereof Shall Know It No More,” there seems to be complete failure as punctuation marks and letters are scattered across pages, with occasional words rising to the surface -- the breakdown of language mirroring a breakdown of identity.
There is a strong lyric mode at work in The Alps. Shimoda skillfully shifts between seriousness -- pondering death in the harsh environment of the Alps -- and lightness -- incorporating playful rhymes, “Take care to mind / listera / ovate fine,” and interesting enjambments, “What I do is organ striking no stop.” He also effectively uses repetition, like in the stark “So Pure and Fresh I Love the Air the Plants the Dark”:
Generation in a landscape
to us, the sick
in a landscape bred
soil growing tongues towards the ice
to us, the lines
in the landscape hanging
our hunger, the flowers
growing towards the tongues
are killer and killer
abundant landscape ope
though none belong
to us, this stem
uncurling when it all will want
to flatten precisely its target
The Alps is a promising and challenging debut, both by the author and by its press. Regardless of the experimental elements and the visual pieces, The Alps fits strongly within the lyric tradition established by poets Shimoda thanks for their example, guidance, and vision: Byron, Coleridge, Dickinson, Percy Shelley, Stevens, and Wordsworth. Hopefully there will be much more to come from this young author and this young press.
The Alps by Brandon Shimoda