Turning Portuguese

Local Presses Team Up for Brandon Shimoda's Book



IN THE EPILOGUE to Brandon Shimoda's newest collection of poems, Portuguese, the author describes the first time he rode a school bus: "Sitting in the seat in front of me is a fourth grader, skinny, with grassy blonde hair and the face of a horse. The seats are green vinyl. The fourth grader turns around in his seat, sticks his long neck into the aisle, looks at me, and says, in a squealing voice, Portugueeese, Portugueeese!"

Shimoda's racial makeup has little to do with Portugal—in his words, he's "half-Japanese," born in California—but it's this childhood memory of identity confusion that the poet cites as the impetus for Portuguese, the first book in a new poetry series from local publishers Tin House Books and Octopus Books.

Penned while riding buses in Seattle (as well as various locations on the East Coast and abroad), the poems in Portuguese draw from scenes encountered on public transportation.

"I spent time reading, while riding the buses, the words and writings of visual artists, mostly painters, especially Etel Adnan, Eugène Delacroix, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Agnes Martin, and Joan Mitchell, all of whom appear in Portuguese," writes Shimoda.

It's as if the thoughts of these artists and the voyeuristic snatches from Shimoda's bus rides are collected in a bucket, and from it the poems pour: psychedelic, expansive bursts of imagery and lyricism, punctuated with philosophical language and quandaries about art and poetry. As the keeper of this surreal liquid, Shimoda has an extraterrestrial kind of presence. He recognizes a couple making out as a face "bulging" from another face, or shows the reader a stack of poems stored in a refrigerator, and next to it, the author's bottled urine—turning, going teratoma.

The structure and constitution of these poems simultaneously examines and obliterates the line between art and life—the two forces are so well mixed as to be, at times, indistinguishable. But Shimoda's project doesn't seem to be interested in clear delineations or didactic takeaways. It's more about perceptual dissonance−how you leave the house knowing you're Japanese until a horse face whinnies, "Portuguese."


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