Reselfing: On Brandon Shimoda’s “Hydra Medusa” and Eleni Sikelianos’s “Your Kingdom”
By Christopher KondrichDecember 20, 2023
Your Kingdom by Eleni Sikelianos
Hydra Medusa by Brandon Shimoda
I couldn’t stop thinking about unselfing as I read the latest books by poets Eleni Sikelianos and Brandon Shimoda—Your Kingdom (Coffee House Press, 2023), and Hydra Medusa (Nightboat Books, 2023), respectively—but not because either was in conversation with Murdoch or Weil. Rather, Sikelianos and Shimoda seem to be updating the concept of unselfing, translating (or should I say retranslating) its core ideas about the interplay between self and world, identity and humility, for the Anthropocene.
Let me unpack this. If the Anthropocene, our current geological age in which there is nothing that is not impacted and transformed by human activity, represents a time in which we know more about the living world and nonhuman animals than ever before, then Sikelianos’s Your Kingdom strives to revise our human-centered sense of self so that we come to recognize all existence as a part of us, to appreciate the ways in which the human body is a confluence of all the nonhuman bodies that have come before us, that surround us even now. Meanwhile, if the idea of the Anthropocene itself implies, or perhaps indirectly suggests, that we, on some level, recognize our own culpability for the transformation of the living world, then Shimoda’s book strives to instill a sense of responsibility to past and future generations.
The poems in Hydra Medusa meditate on ancestors and historical traumas (not just what has been done to the land, but on it) not merely for the sake of mourning, but to fully appreciate the violences and experiences that evolved into who we are (on both an individual and collective level) now. Perhaps, then, Your Kingdom and Hydra Medusa represent less of an unselfing and more of a reselfing, an emptying of who we think we are to make room for that which truly comprises us.
“Why can’t your mom write // Because she’s driving, says daughter / Watch what you say / She’s a poet / She takes notes,” Sikelianos’s collection begins. This playful warning, this cheeky admonition from the speaker’s daughter to her friend, gives readers an expectation of what is to come, but Sikelianos subverts this on the very next page with the title “‘Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of phylogeny’ (Notes).” The notes the speaker’s daughter refers to on the previous page are a red herring because Sikelianos’s poems are less interested in what people say to one another, what Sikelianos overhears, and more interested in the evolutionary and ecological implications of the human body, that our bodies owe more and are more akin to other animals than we ever thought. This is the realm of phylogeny—“Phylogeny: all the plants who grew to be you. All the animals who did,” she writes. But it is also the realm of language:
Can anything ever be held away from human tongues?
Some hunters, in ritual, sidewaysed the names
for bears (arktos, ursus), a
taboo on naming what is wild.
Instead of bear, a hunter said the brown one; honey-eater; good-calf; honey-pig.
As soon as a bear
crept out of a word, a word
did its work
to erase the bear.
And yet, despite the erasure of animals that happens in language, language is also the vehicle that allows Sikelianos to work against such erasure through the sheer pleasure she takes in twisting and troubling syntax and sound, in making the human-animal and animal-animal body feel sung. Lines like “your ticker too is daughter / to a turtle’s who got it / off bacteria” and “What ancient / witch’s chamber is this that houses, superstitious, a // giraffe’s rumpled papilles du palais, a palace / where taste no longer takes place?” leap off the tongue with such aplomb that the page is imbued with physicality. It is this poet’s way of “let[ting] the body feel / all its own evolution / inside,” and though the poem these lines come from, “Your Kingdom,” continues with “opening flagella / & feathers & fingers,” it could have very well continued with “mouth”—as in let the body feel all its evolution inside its mouth.
This title poem, which constitutes its own section in the book, is nothing short of a marvel, one of the most stunning long poems in recent memory because of its breadth and dazzling lyricism. Beginning with the lines quoted above, Sikelianos explores the evolutionary history of the human body “so you can / bore back to the salamander you / once were straggling under the skin.” It is a formally ambitious poem that, typical for Sikelianos’s work, uses the entire page, opening itself up to multiplicities of meaning and implication. Take, for example, what happens when Sikelianos breaks the line after “you” instead of after “salamander”—she is opening the poem up to more than one audience: the “you” (the reader) and the “salamander you” (the aspirational, reselfed reader).
The poem continues, overflowing with myriad evolutionary connections, teasing out these connections to explore them from different angles, with different creatures. “Your Kingdom” unpacks and re-unpacks its central ideas, each time making them feel revelatory by reframing and reinterpreting its insights, its cumulative power in just how many ways Sikelianos makes life come alive in us, in our own body, which we come to see as a repository for evolutionary memory and taken-for-granted wonder:
you, a true
together from bits of genetic
trash like syntax and the poem folds out
from all that’s also unreadable in you
In these lines, Sikelianos revises the parameters for what makes a human so as to give us a portrait of ourselves, reselfed. And throughout “Your Kingdom,” the poet shows us what this might look like: a human is “a true / chimera”; “you,” humans, she writes towards the end of the title poem, “must learn to live with yourselves and all you carry.”
What Your Kingdom does so well is dilate this notion that we contain evolutionary multitudes, but the book also wants us to appreciate the ways in which these evolutionary multitudes are not fixed in time. They are changing, even as Sikelianos writes. “To Do: Write Cephalopod Poem” cleverly looks to the near past as an explanation for the present—it references a to-do note the speaker left for herself, which the poem then goes on to become. “I write something down for my future self. / I want it to change what my self does later,” the poem begins. I think the entirety of Your Kingdom is a to-do note, but instead of recalling a particular poem idea, it is reminding us of our origins, how they are still alive in us, how they are not our origins alone.
If Your Kingdom seeks to instill in readers a sense of the evolutionary hybridity inherent in inhabiting a body, then Hydra Medusa, the prophetic new book by Brandon Shimoda and a continuation of his previous collection, The Desert (The Song Cave, 2018), seeks to illuminate the hybridity of living through the evolving terrors of the United States—in which the traumas of internment camps and border policies, and the systemic dismissal of such traumas, are co-animating forces hybridizing the same society. In “The Desert,” Shimoda captures the dissonance of this hybridity in haunting and incisive imagery:
To sink through the ground of America
is to meet the legions
who have been buried fall through them
commingle, in its original arrangement, The world
above, the world we think we love is
This “sink[ing] through the ground of America” is what Hydra Medusa is enacting, but it is not an exhumation of the dead that exist separate from the living; it is a recognition that the dead exist among and within us, and have always been there in the ways the United States perpetuates and carries on its legacies of trauma. The struggles of ancestors are not in the past; they live on, and, to reference Murdoch via Zaretsky once more, they must be “see[n] […] as they relate to themselves.”
But, contra Murdoch, the struggles of ancestors, for Shimoda, must also be considered as they relate to the living. There is a sense of continuity, generation to generation, at the heart of Shimoda’s ethos as a writer and artist. Speaking of his grandfather, Midori Shimoda, who was deemed an “enemy alien” following Pearl Harbor, the poet writes: “He exists at the beginning of what and why I write, as I exist at the end of what he endured. I am not here as a poet, but as the grandchild of an enemy alien. In other words, the ghost of my grandfather’s struggle to become a citizen, of which my citizenship is the fruition.” Just as Sikelianos writes that our bodies have evolved from other animals more so than we ever thought, Shimoda, in this passage from “The Ghosts of Pearl Harbor,” and in many other pieces in the book, is writing about the ways in which his life has evolved from the struggles of his ancestors, and he does so with intensity and vision.
Additionally, Shimoda weaves a sense of wonder and tenderness throughout Hydra Medusa. The last word of the quoted passage from “The Ghosts of Pearl Harbor,” “fruition,” is used again later in the book (this is but one example of the many echoes of language and imagery throughout), in the second of two poems titled “Death of the Flower”:
When I think of fruit, I think of friends
Giving fruit to friends Gestures of goodwill
A friend leaving, going off,
for a long time,
Here is the fruition.
Here is the death of the flower.
These very moving lines equate a flower’s fruition with its death, and both are given as gestures of goodwill. Coming toward the end of the collection, after poems that interrogate historical traumas and the speaker’s relationship to the dead, I could not read “Death of the Flower” (and other poems such as “Abundance” and “The Javelina”) without notions of ancestors pulsating beneath the page. I could not help but see the life and death of an ancestor as something that is given to younger generations.
This is where reselfing comes in. Written with oracular lyricism, Hydra Medusa encourages readers to see ancestors (including nonhuman animals) as composing our living selves (and, yes, our living cells), and a responsibility comes with this: “Taking care is the first condition of our being born,” Shimoda writes in “The Descendant.” Later in the same piece, the speaker says, “I have come to believe something: that life is preparation for the possibility of becoming an ancestor.” What strikes me about this line is that becoming an ancestor is a possibility, not a foregone conclusion.
Throughout Hydra Medusa, Shimoda does not shy away from interrogating himself, his own intentions and project as a writer. “Death is what it took for us to be in each other’s company,” he writes at the end of “The Skin of the Grave.” “But what kind of company was I? I felt like a vulture. Sand blew across the skin of the grave.” And yet, this self-interrogation is integral for sustaining one’s taking care in the world.
We must take care of the dead, who make up our living bodies, and allow this to inform our journey through “a rapidly and relentlessly expanding graveyard.” With Hydra Medusa and Your Kingdom, Shimoda and Sikelianos argue that we owe the dead care—as we owe it to ourselves, our children, our communities, and every animal who is or ever was.
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