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Notes for National Corpse Month, Part One


I’ve been in love with a corpse.
Etel Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse

Kawaki's insignia

When I grow up I want to be an old woman.

That's the first thing I thought.

I was told: to be an angel, you must be without gender. This is what I was told when I was very young, before I learned Joan Miró was a man. I believed Joan Miró was a Hawaiian woman who died on Christmas Day from eating too much bread dough ...

I thought ...

There was something revolting about being an angel, because angels were the prey of unctuous and angry white women. Angels were white women's anger in another form—the emblem of their spiritual make-overs, which seemed always to result in an even more amoebic, uncontrollable anger. There was something INFINITELY more appealing about being a DEMON, which I learned (also very young), were fallen angels. I could relate to the fall, and liked especially the implication of free will. Even still, graves proliferated to accommodate the consequence of white women's dispossessed dreams. You can see them expanding everywhere, everywhere ...

Kawaki's insignia

Mother of flies
face of the beautiful

I have
to start.
Alice Notley, "A Rare Card"

Kawaki's insignia

The first corpse I did not see was my grandfather's. His corpse is why I am here (poetry). He died September 1996. I did not go to his funeral (North Carolina). It was the only time I saw my father cry, but because I was not there, I did not see it in person, but through my mother's recollection. The funeral was in a church. There were many white women. My grandfather did not know them; he never stepped foot in the church. The white women stepped many feet into the church. The church was made of white women's feet. White women's feet are made of egg yolks and formaldehyde. It was Sunday; the church double-booked. My grandfather died in a room. Can a person die in two rooms at once? His wife and children watched him suck in the room, like a wave going out but not coming back. Where did that final breath go? Seventy-seven years earlier he arrived in the United States by steamship from Japan. He was born on an island off the coast of Hiroshima, then lived with his grandmother on a river in Kumamoto. He was alone on the ship. I mean: no family; his brothers failed their medical exam and his parents were already in Seattle. With him, however, were many young women leaving their families to marry (Japanese) men in the States they knew only from photographs. There are no photos of my grandfather's corpse. Two months after he died, we scattered his ashes on a hill in Death Valley. That's where I buried my book, O Bon, named after the annual festival of the dead. It's the first book I finished (even though it's not finished). My grandfather thinks I'm a fool. He's using my foolishness to his advantage. He keeps disappearing—into holes, hills, mouths, mirrors, photographs, walls, and now—because of the foolishness of a grandson who did not see his grandfather's corpse—poetry.

Kawaki's insignia

Why am I remembering this? Because it's April, National Corpse Month—a month for recounting corpses. Or that is what I want to do. And because there are many National's worth despising—i.e. Aeronautics, Anthem, Endowment, Football, Front, Geographic, Guard, Poetry, Security, Socialism—I mean the eight billion people now living. A Month is a manageable unit of despair, and the five billions years until the sun burns out.

By Corpse I mean ...

What ...

I am trying to understand ...

The corpse that comes first ...

To mind ...

Is the corpse I have not seen.

An unseen corpse bestows upon the person who does not see it the status (descendant or ascendant) of a wandering ghost, for whom the unseen corpse becomes THE PROVINCE.

Poetry is a progressive aberration of wandering as the consequence of not having seen the corpse.

Is recounting the same as making visible?

Or does poetry make the corpse even more unseen?

What is given a visible corpse?

If you have not seen the corpse—especially if you did not know the person—then the corpse is your imagination turned inside-out. It bears no relation to the person who has died. Instead, the person who has not died incarnates a dead edition. Because the imagination upholds no hierarchy between the living and the dead, the dead edition, once incarnated, possesses as much power to become the dominant self as the living (now also an edition). Because the dead edition is not truly dead, but an edition, it is not endowed with the intelligence of a liberated spirit, but is retarded.

Kawaki's insignia

Wherever there is a corpse, there is a living body getting stronger.

A corpse is reaped ...

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everyone who comes to the riverbank turns into a corpse
—Hiromi Itō, Wild Grass on the Riverbank
(translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles)

the father sobbed
before a child's corpse
on the riverbank.
—Pura López-Colomé, "Maybe Borneo"
(translated from the Spanish by Forrest Gander)

Kawaki's insignia

When I say first, I mean the most traumatic, the most enduring. When my grandfather arrived in the United States, he was not an American citizen—he was a Japanese National—but he was more American in that moment than in the seventy-seven years that followed. He was preceded by his shadow. He was most American the moment before his foot touched his shadow. In this, he had much in common with the picture brides, for whom the United States was embodied in photos of future husbands. The husbands vanquished at least one source of possibility.

A shadow is the consciousness of a fall—to the ground, away from the sun, through the earth, the body, into silence, paralysis, and-or eternal life.

My grandfather's desire to be American is what made him American. When his desire was satisfied, what made him most American dissipated, and what remained was the human equivalent of a melted candle.

Did the fire end his corpse? Head or feet first? If he resisted the fire and walked out of the crematory, would he have left black or white footprints?

His mother (my great-grandmother), Kawaki Okamoto, was a picture bride from Hiroshima. Kawaki's future husband, Geiichi Shimoda, many years older, was a contract laborer on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii. I counted seventy Okamoto's who died in the bombing of Hiroshima (70 years ago this August)—from Nobuo (0 years old) to Kie (64), though surely there were many people older than Kie who were forgotten or not counted.

Kawaki's insignia

The photograph of the woman that begins these notes—Christian with Keloidal Scars—was taken by Shōmei Tōmatsu (1930-2012) in Nagasaki, 1961.

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Pregnant with a corpse, the hearse goes into heat, heading for the crematorium.
—Hiromi Itō, "Moving"

Corpses are things that, deep in my heart, I’m always thinking that I want to see.
—Hiromi Itō, "Part of a Living Man"
(translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu)

Kawaki's insignia

Autopsy—from Greek autopsia, "a seeing with one's own eyes" ...

A ...

Witness has been bastardized ...

An autopsy of a murdered body is incomplete without including an examination of the body of the murderer. The body of the murderer is often very large—as large as the community (and-or society) that acts as it's wet nurse—yet the body becomes small in descriptions motivated by fear.

A copse is a cluster of trees. A corps is a military branch. Cops are State implantations. A corpse is part of a company, the function of which is the proliferation of bodies in which the company can perceive itself reflected as a laudatory mass ...

Kawaki's insignia

A shadow is the consciousness of a fall: Before I stopped attending poetry readings, I started to notice the shadows the poets cast on the walls behind them while they were reading, which became more interesting than the poets themselves, and their poetry. The shadows told a more truthful story. Bodhisattvas and warriors and sleeve dancers and demon slayers and goddesses—all of whom seem worthy models for the poet, in life, mummification, as graven images, etc.—project the consciousness of their fall in the form of more radiant, spirited (DEMON) versions of their excellence, even. Poets, meanwhile, project more lamentable figures. Their shadows resemble ogres, hunchbacks, homunculi, hobgoblins, bankers, politicians, carnival barkers ...

Kawaki's insignia

The poet with the best body is both a heavenly host above the table and the corpse being carved upon it.
—Anne Boyer, "The Poet with the Best Body"

The names of the corpse-emperors and their vampiry poems were pasted to our bodies
—Daniel Borzutzky, "The Empire of a Corpse Folds Inward"

Kawaki's insignia

A name is a filial form of law enforcement. It is the third element of death to the living: the corpse, the spirit, the name. Which do we envision of a person after life? Which rots first? Is a name imperishable?

On page 27 of her book, Untimely Death Is Driven Out Beyond The Horizon (1913 Press, 2014), Brenda Iijima quotes psychologist Julian Jaynes (from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976):

If you think of someone close to you who has died, and then suppose that he or she had no name, in what would your grief consist?

What do grief and rotting have in common? There is no such thing as a "rotting" corpse. Like the wooden effigy of a saint or a genius modeled in stone, a corpse is preserved within the mirage.

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Phlegmatic the rotting and western a corpse to divide the brain
—Brenda Iijima, Untimely Death is Driven Out Beyond the Horizon

The corpses are everyone and they are alone and alive in the grass and the sand and the forests and in our nostalgia for graves and tombstones and flowers that mark the memory of those bodies that once had names.
—Daniel Borzutzky, The Book of Interfering Bodies

The breeze stirs me, and without my realizing it, I have started into my corpse.
—Phil Cordelli, "The Dream As I Remember It"

Kawaki's insignia

I did not see my grandfather dying. I did not see him dead.

I also did not see my grandfather being born.

But I have pictured my grandfather naked ...

I did not see him naked.

And I have been to the river (where he lived with his grandmother).

But I have not been to the island ...


Originally Published: April 2nd, 2015

Brandon Shimoda is the author of several books of poetry, including O Bon (Litmus Press, 2011) and Evening Oracle (Letter Machine Editions, 2015), which won the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. He is also the co-editor, with Thom Donovan, of To look at the sea is to become what one...