Thursday, May 10, 2012



“[Wake me from sleep]” in O Bon by Brandon Shimoda
(Litmus Press, Brooklyn, NY, 2011)

Wake me from sleep

not a ghost

but a man of ash without speech

I am ordered


According to the letter that accompanies my review copy, “Refracted and reflected through the story of his own family’s history, in particular, the life and passing of his grandfather, Brandon Shimoda’s O Bon accesses two major sites of trauma: the bombings of Hiroshima, and the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans.”

In what way am I qualified to read or write about this book? That is a question that has become more and more insistent as I move through this project. Who am I to comment on anything? Especially, who am I to comment on Shimoda’s response to his grandfather’s life and death, to Hiroshima, to the  Japanese-American internment camps.

Yes, I’ve visited Manzanar on several occasions. Yes, I wrote a 25-page paper in high school about the camps. But really …

Perhaps today is a day of having lost my nerve. I don’t know. But all this should explain why I’ve chosen the poem I’ve chosen to read and write about: I read it as a non-specific command to witness. When witness is impossible, witness.

And to witness is something that falls to all of us, as humans, whether or not witness is our poetic path. It just so happens that my current project is indeed a poem of witness, called In the House of the Hangman. My title comes from something Theodor Adorno once wrote: “in the house of the hangman, one should not mention the noose, one might be suspected of harboring resentment.” I began this poem in 2010, about the time of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Why? Because these are “dark times”, to quote Hannah Arendt. My audience? My grandchildren (3 at the moment), just turning one (they are triplet boys). Thirty, fifty, however many years from now, I want them to know that their grandfather was paying attention.

The above is just to explain from what perspective I will be writing about this little poem, which, in my heart and soul at least, just expands and expands. If this were a scholarly essay, I would certainly be quoting and discussing Blanchot, and Celan, at the very least. Which brings me back to my problem with giving a reading of this poem, doesn’t it? I am clearly only able to understand the experience of a Japanese-American through the experience of a Jewish European-American. He has his camps, I have mine, so to speak.

What I wish I were doing is entering into conversation with Shimoda, to discuss the distortions and overlaps that two such different histories might produce.

(In fact, the more of these readings I have attempted, the more I have begun to with that I could read these poems WITH their authors … “But even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked”.)

I guess I am calling into question here the possibility of reading. But read we must. Because read we must. Because … To anticipate: “I am ordered”.


“Wake me from sleep”. This is a command. From whom or what? I can never be sure. By the spirits of the dead, who, as in the epic tradition, clamor for an audience? By the needs of the future, which I cannot but must anticipate? Sleepers Wake (a command) is a famous name for a famous Bach cantata, in which the chorus sings
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, the voice calls to us). Sleepers Awake (also a command) the name of a famous post apocalyptic novel by Kenneth Patchen. It is the name of a novel by H G Wells. And so on.

In this case the voice of command is coming from the sleeper himself, who realizes that the time has come. What has prompted this?

“not a ghost”. At first it seems possible that the poem is declaring that whatever has prompted this need to wake is “not a ghost” – which it could have been. After all, Wikipedia tells me that

Obon (お盆?) or just Bon (?) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one's ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors' graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars.

OK. So the internal prompt to wake has not come from one of Shimoda’s ancestors.

“but a man of ash without speech”. This is mysterious. Not a ghost but a man of ash without speech. Who/what might that be? A mute survivor of Hiroshima, or of the camps, perhaps? A living person, too broken to offer witness …

Then I realize that the last two lines could equally well be describing the “me” of the first line, who is not a ghost, but a man of ash without speech. A Japanese Celan, so to speak.

I call these two lines hinges, because they swing in the direction of the self, and the other, back and forth, back and forth …

“I am ordered”. This line, too, has two potential meanings, one weaker, one stronger (or perhaps vice-versa, I feel on slippery ground here …). First, “I am ordered” could mean, “I am ordered to speak for the one whose throat is filled with ash (whether that is myself, the other, or both at the same time, it doesn’t really matter.” Second, it could also mean, “I am now in my appropriate place in line, ‘I am ordered’ meaning I am now after what came before and before what comes after.”

I think I will reject, my weaker/stronger thing, and accord these two meanings the same strength. After all, it is the Obon festival (or so the book’s title suggests), and one thing that I imagine happens is that taking care of one’s ancestors puts one in mind that one will someday be an ancestor, too.

So there are two reasons to bear witness.

One, is so that those against whom injustice is done (and I would call internment an injustice, and I would call incineration at Hiroshima an injustice, tho the word seems way too weak in that context) are, like all our ancestors, never forgotten, and so that we can fight for a future in which such injustices cease to happen (Walter Benjamin called this our weak messianic power).

Two, which may well be another way of saying the same thing, to wake and bear witness, to situate oneself between the past and the future, between one’s ancestors and one’s descendants, orders the cosmos, and allows it to carry on.

Either way, we are ordered.

Either way, we are “the empty vessel that has to pour.”


[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days.  While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another.  So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review.  To wit: NEXT.  And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]

John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.

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