The Afterlives of Violence: On Brandon Shimoda’s “Hydra Medusa”
By Hana RiversJune 27, 2023
Hydra Medusa by Brandon Shimoda
When I told my partner I was writing this review, I showed him the cover of my battered copy of Evening Oracle. He, too, was entranced. Seeking a source for the image, we flipped to the book’s copyright page, which informed us that it is a postcard of a young Japanese entertainer, date unknown, from a collection titled Sekaiichi Kuma-musume, which translates to “The World’s Greatest Bear Girl.” If you try, as we did, to Google the image, the attempt will be in vain: the photograph cannot be found, nor can any more information about the girl it captured. She remains ever enigmatic, writhing into a pit of time as unknowable as the universe.
Shimoda’s newest project, Hydra Medusa, is a hybrid collection of poems and essays whose title conveys a similarly serpentine aesthetic. In Greek mythology, Medusa was a snake-haired sorceress whose gaze held the power to enchant and bind, to literally turn a viewer into stone, while the hydra was a many-headed water snake that, when decapitated, sprouted two more heads from each wound. The Medusa was eventually killed by the Greek hero Perseus; to defeat the hydra, Heracles enlisted the help of fellow soldiers to cauterize each beheaded stump, sealing off the wounds to prevent new heads from growing.
Throughout Hydra Medusa, the dead sprout from dreams of a poet’s death, from stories woven by a landlord snaking a drain, from cakes set atop mounds of dirt. Unlike the hydra in Greek mythology, Hydra Medusa’s wounds refuse cauterization, instead serving as sites of transformative historical encounter. In the aftermath of Japanese incarceration during World War II, a topic that has consistently engaged Shimoda’s thinking and writing, looking into these wounds informs how we see the landscape of the past as it shimmers, mirage-like, in the here and now.
Earlier, I mentioned being entranced by the cover of Evening Oracle. I meant “entranced” in both senses of the word: captivated, but also brought across a threshold. In other words, the image on the cover of Evening Oracle is the portal through which I entered Shimoda’s work. Hydra Medusa, too, is full of portals: each poem or essay threads readers down a rabbit hole of dreams, ghosts, and otherworldly desert landscapes. These holes lead to serrated moments of political reckoning that are as beautiful as they are tragic, momentous, and uncanny.
Shimoda’s essay “The Descendants,” included in Hydra Medusa, is particularly unflinching politically in that it asks readers to contend with the connective nature of violence. In it, Shimoda explores the medieval notion of cruentation, “the theory that a corpse will, in the presence of its murderer, bleed.” Then it asks a hackle-raising question: “What if the expression of blood from a corpse was the genesis of a curse in which a murderer inherited the blood of the corpse they produced? The murderer would become the corpse’s descendant, while the dead would become the murderer’s ancestor.”
What is the purpose of inverting this dynamic of violence such that perpetrator and victim remain intimately connected throughout long swaths of time? Why did this idea provoke so much discomfort in me as a reader? Rather than providing clear answers, Shimoda’s work offers something much more crucial: a kaleidoscopic way of seeing the world in which normative boundaries—of past and present, ancestor and descendant, dreaming and waking—blur past recognition.
Shimoda’s boundary-blurring requires a dissolution of the self: “I am not a poet when I am writing poetry. I am only a poet when I am reading it,” he states. Iranian American poet Solmaz Sharif observes that Hydra Medusa “is the continuation of a work by a poet who gets out of the way for poetry, who steps fully into it and vanishes.” Shimoda’s text is a portal for collectively navigating the afterlives of violence, no matter how we’re individually implicated in them. In “get[ting] out of the way for poetry,” he ushers in unlikely possibilities for healing that would otherwise remain out of our grasp, in spaces perhaps too dark and too sticky to occupy.
Shimoda’s navigation of interstitial spaces is also bound up in his poetic aesthetics. Many of his texts repeat a refrain: “I had a dream last night.” In these dreams, there are “long scarves of ocean” and “fish [fly] through the air, over the tree.” In Shimoda’s essay “The Skin of the Grave,” the recounting of a dream is punctured by the line, “Years ago, I lived in Oaxaca.” Did the speaker live in Oaxaca in the dream, or in waking life? How does the past tense function within the (non)logic of a dream? In Hydra Medusa, Shimoda writes along the seam between dreaming and waking.
Dreams nest like Russian dolls, living inside each other and overlapping. The overall effect creates a portal to a place in which borders are suspended. These in-between spaces are as ambivalent to convention as the face of the snake-clad girl on the cover of Evening Oracle. They play with danger. They reside in the webbed areas between consciousness, death, and life. They mushroom into new ways of communing with ourselves and with the past, especially in the aftermaths of violence from which many of us are descended.
In reading Hydra Medusa, I was often reminded of the work of artist Cory Feder, which also takes up the unlikely physics of dreams, emanating a flummoxing, mythical quality. In one of her drawings, a black-haired woman crouches, hands pressed together in prayer, as rings of orange beetles ripple from her center, where a carnation stands erect. In another, a winged woman crosses a bed of flowers as her braids spiral through the air around her, displacing clouds on which sit mischievous monkeys. Flora and fauna abound, and humans interact with nature and are transformed by it, rupturing boundaries of species and consciousness.
Feder, who was kind enough to send me a few of her artistic statements, describes her work as “fenceless” and “in perpetual transit.” In a drawing of hers that hangs in my kitchen, a woman reclines among a blazing candle and vessels of strawberries, tomatoes, and oranges. Round, purple-clad figures carry stars from a cherry blossom tree to the woman’s face. The abundant, humanized quality of each item speaks to how material objects can function as doorways to memories, dreams, and otherworldly spaces. Shimoda’s writings often read like descriptions of a piece of art Feder might create; he describes, for example, “floating […] down a long, low-ceilinged hallway, at the far end of which was a large doorway that opened onto a bright green forest filled with dozens of young, round-headed deer, all of them lying on each other, asleep.”
Both Shimoda and Feder engage intimately with the imagery of dreams, imagery that beckons readers into a kaleidoscope, an alternative way of relating to the world. When artists “get out of the way” of art, as Shimoda and Feder do, they make room for something larger than themselves. In doing so, they create space to fissure normative boundaries and forge unlikely connections, such as with each other.
Historical violence has a way of scattering narratives and people across time, space, and consciousness. Brandon Shimoda’s work acknowledges this and does something about it. As Hydra Medusa makes clear, the past is separated from the present and future only by “a thin buoy of breathing.” In this collection, Shimoda blurs boundaries in order to occupy interstitial spaces. He offers invaluable possibilities for living not only in the afterlife of violence but also in the here and now.
Hana Rivers is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is a 2023 Periplus fellow and is currently working on her first novel.
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