Book Review

After its initial epigraph, Brandon Shimoda’s Evening Oracle presents its reader with a group of phrases and names set in all caps and separated by periods—Japanese and English signifiers strung together, pointing in all directions at once. They begin:


Following them on the page is a stream of italicized sentences and sentence fragments just on the edge of sense-making: “But what I really wanted to tell you. My grandmother died this morning. Whenever I think about my “personal” history. It is 9:18 in the morning in the San Fernando Valley. Those oranges remind me. Today, on the phone I thought I heard, for the first time […]” They continue on to form a long paragraph—its sentences and clauses more in conversation with one another than with the reader—before being book-ended by another set of caps.

On subsequent pages, we begin to encounter poems. Their titles: TWO WOMEN, RESPECTS NEVER STOP, TAMAMUSHI.  Still later we see that each mismatched sentence from that initial page refers to a prose passage. We realize what we were given was in fact a table of contents, and one of the highest order—a table of contents that teaches its reader how to encounter that which is to come, not with page numbers or instructions, but with an opening up, a luring into the book’s own dream state.

It is in this manner that we continue to move through the book, following its dim light, its sensing and sorting through its own meaning. More than halfway in, we learn what it is we are reading: “The only poems I’ve written in the past two years,” Shimoda discloses, “all started in Japan, at night, in bed […] They’re called, collectively, Evening Oracle, from a poem by Prince Niu, sixth or seventh century …” They follow the speaker through travel and rest in the homes of strangers and friends as he searches for ancestry’s physical remains and inhabits those metaphysical. From “Nakanose”:

I can feel my vagrant idiocy
Mistranslating those
Unrelated to me
I visit still, repeatedly

The poems themselves contain the imaginative austerity found in much of Shimoda’s other work, combining airtight syntax and precisely calibrated lineation to upset and extend meaning over and over again. From “Camphor Tree”:

Where a monk took his life
Beneath the tree
And became a shabby corsage
In a cup, I am pissing   The colors rise up
Form a transient poem in the air

We must take time in order to see, and in softening our gaze to meet the poem’s vision, we do see—an entire world at once. Yet, as we settle into its landscape, we are sent again away into large blocks of prose—personal communications to and from friends, family, other poets and artists. Among the senders: Etel Adnan, Mary Ruefle, Karena Youtz. Much is attended to in these mixed-up bits of letters and emails, but a most central concern is that of the aging and death of elders, particularly family members, particularly grandparents. These accounts of primal moments of witness at or near the passage between the living and the dead are arresting in both their singularity and their quotidian diction. Laid together, they become the book’s center of gravity—a great mass of voices accumulated in the space of distance travelled. Not only the distance between the two groups of poems at hand, but the distance between their senders.

The workings of Evening Oracle are both circuitous and transparent. The book shrouds itself in shadows only to fling light at them, revealing as it conceals. After even the book’s notes have concluded, and in the tiniest print, we read, “evening oracle: form of divination from words spoken by passersby in the evening.” The poems of Evening Oracle began in ritual, as a taking down of the messages of nightfall. When brought together and combined with the voices of trusted others, they become a book whose reading itself is a ritual creation of space, of a threshold between. From “Tamamushi”:

Waking is dying often
Feels exactly how
It feels

To fly to the center of where it is
To stake a claim on silence or
Murmur, This is the realm

I have been made
I have been told
To make

In one understanding of the word, liminality is the feeling experienced when a ritual has been undertaken, but has not yet been completed. It is a feeling of disorientation, of between-ness. Through its many speakers, Evening Oracle not only allows us to witness its disorientation and revelation as they turn over and under each other in its author’s inquiry of his lineage, it brings us to experience the sensation in our own bodies. We see the largeness that extends from any one human life. And it is here, in this scale and uncertainty, that we realize the highest reality might come to be only on the threshold: the threshold between sleep and waking, the living and the dead, between poetry and logic. From “Yokohama”:

The deeper they inhale the sun, the closer they come
To divining the future in shadows, reflecting
The star that will become of earth
Down the corridor of space
And the neck that is lost
You wanted to kiss, and you will

About the Reviewer

CL Young is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in PEN Poetry Series, Poor Claudia, The Volta, and elsewhere.