Litmus Press, $15 (paper)
Brandon Shimoda’s O Bon charts the arc of abjection after the death of a grandfather. Shimoda’s poems effortlessly situate personal loss in a broader context as they interrogate the myths, rituals, and cultural practices associated with the afterlife. In many ways this abiding interest in mourning culture is enacted in the style of the poems themselves. Presented as a book-length sequence of elegies, invocations, and lyric fragments, Shimoda’s book simultaneously appropriates and re-envisions the literary forms found in sacred texts. Consider “O,” in which he writes, “let down / the ship of war // long tress / to the indomitable / scales.” Here Shimoda conflates prayer and invocation with his own family history, ultimately individualizing these inherited literary forms. Indeed, Shimoda’s own experience often serves as a point of entry to larger questions about how individuals grieve, and the ways that this process is circumscribed by culture. He writes in an untitled piece, “Wake me from sleep / not a ghost / but a man of ash without speech // I am ordered.” This piece describes the book itself. Shimoda is compelled by his own loss to engage with the elaborate cultural history associated with mourning. The book offers an account of an individual negotiating this history, finding agency and voice within the parameters circumscribed by one’s ancestors. Shimoda’s use of autobiography proves at once innovative and expansive. In short, O Bon is a plaintive, beautifully written collection. Shimoda offers readers a graceful synthesis of form and content, of autobiography and history, and of the personal and the divine.