Reviewed by Janna Knittel
Brandon Shimoda’s book Portuguese is a fragmentary, challenging read. Shimoda’s work is often associated with postsurrealism, an American movement dating to the 1970s and responding to surrealism. For Shimoda, these influences manifest in unexpected or surprising word choices, unusual juxtapositions, and non sequitur (“I must / Remember to install the dishwasher / In the young boy, after I trim his grape.”) It is fascinating, but not immediately accessible, poetry.
Despite the complications, however, Shimoda’s poetry opens up to readers who are patient with it; those who reread will see connections among some poems and find moments of clarity. Titles often signal possible connections, such as with the multiple poems titled “The Grave on the Wall.” In one, Shimoda begins with a clear description: “Coming down the partially shielded hill / To meet the gathering of good friends at the shore.” Another begins with an arresting image: “I love your face, the way / It bulges out of another face.”
The focus on intimate relationships shifts to poetic legacies and rewards the reader who may be searching for more conventional or clear expression:
There is no poetry
Without people pulling the curtain
On the aging and diminishment
Of its progenitors
The speaker expresses anxiety about measuring up to these progenitors: “I whipped the skin off the aging poet’s face, made / A remark about color, and was immediately / Corrected.”
While the poems do not immediately seem linked thematically, all play with language and signification. The phrase “The Grave on the Wall” obviously can refer to a grave in a cemetery, but “grave” can also be a verb, to carve or cut. The title, then, refers to the proverbial writing on the wall and the art of sculpture as well as to death and mortality.
As a postsurrealist, Shimoda is likely influenced by visual art and art theory and this is also apparent in the epigraphs. The book is organized into sections preceded by quotations from Eugène Delacroix, Alberto Giacometti, Agnes Martin, and Joan Mitchell. Their words inspire thoughts about the relationship between writing and visual arts, and about meaning and aesthetics in general, though the poems in each section don’t obviously refer directly back to the quotation at the beginning.
Humor lifts some of the poems above the density of language:
we drove to Bridgeport, Connecticut, I hated it
Hartford, Connecticut: hate it
Old Saybrook, Connecticut, t-shirts: hate it and
Myself; Fairfield, Connecticut: myself
Ridgefield, Connecticut: everyone else
The sarcasm is more biting toward the speaker himself than toward Connecticut or other people because he portrays himself as so persistently dissatisfied. The speaker is being arrogant, but expresses that arrogance with what sounds like childish pouting. The humor therefore comes from self-deprecation rather than a sense of superiority.
Humor also appears in “Black for Light Years,” a conversation between two people that demonstrates how misheard language still signifies, just not in the way it is intended:
We got stuck in the gas station last night
Megan put $102 of gas in the car
And the car wouldn’t WORK
You put $102 of gas in the car
And the car wouldn’t WORK? No, bitch
The CARD wouldn’t work
Shimoda’s use of Black English is striking because this is one of the few poems in which the both speakers are clearly personas. The title echoes one of the character’s descriptions of a mutual acquaintance: “That’s fucking MAN-WELL! / That nigga’s just big for NO REASON.”
The title of Portuguese originated with an incident in Shimoda’s childhood when another boy asked him pointedly if he were Portuguese. He reports and comments on this incident in his acknowledgements at the end of the book. He found it very confusing, particularly because he was only in sixth grade and didn’t know what he was being accused of. While the other child’s question seems completely random—Shimoda identifies as half-Japanese—he then provides some history and a very compelling coincidence. In 1543, an off-course Portuguese ship landed on the coast Japan. The sailors were the first European men to enter the country and they contributed many of their own words to the Japanese language. (Several of Shimoda’s poems reference these words and he lists them in this section.) In retrospect, these two stories create a loose narrative structure around the poems, many of which recount cross-cultural experiences, or demonstrate that some combinations of words can seem completely strange at first but that later a relationship or coherence will become apparent.
Portuguese is a volume that warrants multiple readings and study. Often, the poems rely on abstractions that can be difficult to make anything of: “The first order of transcendence is fascination / Wherein tricks evaporate into friendship.” It is a challenging book that will frustrate many readers but that also offers rewards of strikingly lovely images: “The glade of water thrust a single bird from the dark” and “I can barely lift my hands without turning something simple into a bouquet.”
Overall, the book’s play with language and the challenges it affords defy the quotation from Delacroix that begins one section: “grosser minds are more easily moved by writers than by painters or musicians.”
Janna Knittel is a first-year poet in the UM’s MFA program in Creative Writing and a co-winner of the Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize. She has published poems in Midwest Quarterly, The Adirondack Review, Kaleidoscope, The Jabberwock Review, Apostrophe , and Parnassus; articles in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, Indigenous Nations Studies Journal, Middle-Atlantic Writers Association (MAWA) Review, Popular Culture Review , and Victorian Review; and a chapter in the book American Indian Rhetorics of Survivance: Word Medicine, Word Magic (University of Pittsburgh Press).