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so I in love with white
and when she suffers outside
while I am sick she blacks
so I in love with black
We came there for the view: we stayed because of the camera-work, cautious as a groom.
Brandon Shimoda’s THE ALPS – ramped in contrast, perversely personal – is about how mountains are born. It is also a work of strange and precise linguistic register, and brings a central tectonic paradox strangely to life: how landforms that to us seem one of the planet’s most static features could be the result of so much ancient movement, anguish, and heat.
The American philosopher and conservationist Aldo Leopold famously wrote, in his A Sand County Almanac, about ‘thinking like a mountain’: a transformation that had occurred to him as he watched the life ebb out the eyes of a mother wolf he’d rifled down while on a U.S. Forestry patrol.
At first Leopold had exulted in the kill – the deer population would increase, improving hunting conditions, and farmer’s livestock would be kept that much more safe. Until he realized that the mountain he’d fired from was denuded from young vegetation, nipped at by doe and fawn, and saw the trampled hillsides eroding from winter rains, into muddy, purposeless creeks.
Leopold realized that the interdependent system nature had constructed for herself was far more nuanced and realized than any adjustments man, or deer, or wolf might undertake in their lifetimes. A mountain is more than a system, a barrier, a food source, a separator of cultures; it is these things also – but a mountain is really a family.
Brandon Shimoda is thinking like a mountain here. THE ALPS are personal, earthy, choppy accretions: the softly bizarre frontispiece image of the author and his sister is there so you can feel it. And while there is a long back-catalog of poetry whose authors have used their lives’ own minutiae to reflect greater historic, political, more mountainous concerns, Shimoda is striving for the opposite of this.
The writer is very consciously turning those binoculars around, and this is rarer. The glacier-keen sense of space and event, seen
with the force of gravity the trammel of flanks
moving deeply through
the ambulant stacks scratching
endlessly upon the dell
Is pressing the earth-science into a composite biography of a pieced-together artistic self. Is this dangerous? Well, it’s scary.
I think of the vertiginous shock I’ve felt every time I’ve flown down into/out-of and over the Alps – and the alpine register – on a jet, dropping out of the cloud anonymity to face the whole jagged, busted, gunmetal and white stretch of them, before touching down in the Zurichs and Milans and Turins. I’ve never been able to rationalize that physical response within myself; I’ve zipped around the Sierras, the Rockies, the Appenines, sure, but, as a geographical feature alone, nothing but the sight of the Alps has ever really fucked me fully out of myself. Driving around the drivable parts of the Alps is really a chaotic and sensuous thing. So much steep surprise. I sense that the Alps have also fucked this poet. Lucky poet!
The cinematographic lens is also very much a player here, as images strike not only to shatter and surprise, but in the deft way that different distances and observational registers raggedly interplay. From fisheye to telephoto, but not as a smooth zoom. It’s never simply lyrical, never comfortable, as
In fatal desperation
I climb inside my love of fatal desperation
I climb inside my love of beef, slow-moving against my eyes
I suck beef from the vine, I suck butter from grapes
THE ALPS contain additional risks, many of them interior. And it’s frequently, conversationally raunchy. A little drunk-sounding. And while the scenic register and complexity are marvelous, the voice-volume suffers occasionally from this torquing of the grandiose, and the facts behind the features can strike the reader as faraway feeling, forcibly oblique, even occasionally daft.
This opacity becomes a weapon of sorts, however, in the book’s dazzling centerpiece, HEADMAIDENS. This graphically isolated section, illustrated with vintage, found mountain snapshots, are where Shimoda really, physically loses himself in his new geologic time. Accreted not from his own writings, but from the work of more than twenty solicited collaborators who penned lines and prose blocks based on those photographs, HEADMAIDENS is collaged from what seem like a hundred mouths.
Arranged into the familiar blocks, angles and breath-rhythm of the poems that preceded it, HEADMAIDENS is precisely ‘not right’ in a brand new way. At the heart of this massive “self”, Shimoda has placed an almost disembodied poetic voice. And melted into it. Into his readership, his collaborators, his landscape. Another other. This almost catholic level of belief in collaboration, and the author’s willingness to fall into its chances, is not a new turn for Shimoda. It’s been a key element of many of his projects, such as the longtime collaboration with poet Phil Cordelli on their consistently excellent book series, blog and lifestyle exoneration, The Pines. And numerous other projects and curatorial efforts focused on systemic and serial collaboration. But THE ALPS goes further with this conceit than just about anything I can think of. And after the HEADMAIDENS section, Shimoda seems to emerge as a fully bifurcated being.
“Let the observer here leave the ice, and betake himself to either
side of the flanking mountain”
Says the prefatory epigraph. Breathing through snow:
a genuine haunt between limit and field
Obsessed with new tastes and raw in the skin, Shimoda has attained some scary perspective from the death-birth of HEADMAIDENS. Here’s what the dead man sees:
as the hand
shuttles the Scottish hole, churning
the American Japanese
the indigenous cream or the gentians—
throughout the motivations
to traverse the cropping continent
I will meet you
ice around our feet
It’s sort-of impenetrable, but it’s also sort of great. The gaps between the lines are tantalizingly mineral. Another otherness I’m reminded of by this book, the glorious 1970s Panavision-lensed documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest, which chronicled alpinist-daredevil Yuichiro Miura as he and a large crew of sherpas and assistants (eight of whom died, virtually on-camera, during the ascent) as they climbed to Everest’s notorious South Col and, from 26,000 feet, attempted to ski down the vertical granite slope.
It’s an amazing, and dehumanizing, piece of 70mm footage. For two hours we’ve basically watched Miura and his team, wearing impossibly fashionable ski-jackets and mirrored sunglasses, lazily make their way from base camp day by day, smoking cigarettes in tents, packing away the dailies, and making toasts, as the landscape shifts gradually from leafy, colorful repetition to something lunar, binary, vaporous, and mean.
When Miura, dragging a goofy bullseye-ringed parachute behind him, actually descends from Everest’s South Col, it’s completely silent. The cameras capture him from so far away, and with such telescoped compression, that his actions vibrate like a lifeless, mechanical speck.
The distance he’s traveling (something like 7,000 vertical feet in two minutes) feels like a tiny gap that kids might whisper across. When Miura finally comes to a stop, buried in his rig, he’s barely 200 feet from a death-dealing crevasse that drops an uninterrupted 2,000 feet.
When they interview him afterward, mentioning his rate of descent and his inhuman altitude, he replies, “Those are only numbers. Numbers have meaning in the world below. But in this almost airless world, what do they represent?” Exactly. How can he, or anybody, quantify the singular experience of a death-experience?
I suspect that Brandon Shimoda may know exactly how this man felt. Because “Brandon Shimoda” is dead.
Brandon Downing is a videomaker, visual artist, and writer originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. His collections include The Shirt Weapon (Germ, 2002), and Dark Brandon (Faux, 2005). An online gallery of much of his recent photographic work can be seen online at www.brandondowning.org. A feature-length DVD collection of recent video works, Dark Brandon // Eternal Classics, was released in 2007, and a monograph of his literary collages, Lake Antiquity, will be published by Fence in 2009.