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Notes for National Corpse Month, Part Two


There is a mound of earth in the city of Hiroshima where the bodies of 70,000 nameless people killed by the atomic bomb are buried. The mound is in the park between the Honkawa and Motoyasu tributaries of the Ōta River. Not the bodies of the nameless people, but their ashes. The nameless people died fast—they had no time to pass out of their names, or their bodies; the nameless people were deprived of their corpses.

The mound has a peculiar disposition. The grass is landscaped and green or dying or dead or coming back to life, but the shape is of a breast or the crown of a bubble or an eyeball or the sun on the horizon—the shape, in fact, of an atomic bomb's fireball at sixty milliseconds. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but I mean it formally. The mound is oddly precise.

The morning Dot Devota and I visited the mound, a man in a sky-blue outfit, goggles, and a white helmet, was mowing it with a weed eater. We shared a plate of fruit, then spent 13 hours in the park—in the museum, the library, the trees, the grass, by the river, looking, taking notes, listening to hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) tell their stories, with thousands of people, with no one. There were bells at 8:15 in the morning, which transmogrified, by 8:15 at night, into colorful lights on the Motoyasu. It was August 6, 2011, the 66th anniversary of the bomb (1945), and my 33rd birthday (1978).

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When we lie down to sleep at the bottom of the darkness, we are nearly as content as the corpses around us.
—Tada Chimako, From a Woman of a Distant Land
(translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles)

Let the corpse appear that yawns and stretches beneath the earth.
—Vicente Huidobro, Sky Tremor

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Shoso Hirai was sixteen when Little Boy detonated on the east bank of the Motoyasu. I hate America, he said, taking our hands in his and thanking us for being there. He was one of five hibakusha telling their stories in the basement of the Memorial Museum. They told their stories in Japanese, then after an intermission, in English. During the intermission, the room emptied, and only a few people remained. All the hibakusha except Keiko Ogura were teenagers on August 6, 1945. Keiko was eight. She spoke the longest. Her story began with a refusal. People were dying all around her—burning, thirsty, in need of water. Keiko gave them water from the family well. They drank the water, vomited, and died. It was morning—they died in the afternoon. She knew she did not kill them, but felt, it was me! What killed them was too unknowable; it was somehow easier to take responsibility for the nightmare. Her story began when she decided she was never going to tell anyone. She called it her invisible scar.

Shoso talked about finding and carrying his father's bones. I felt in his hands the burden of his hatred, I saw on his face the openness of his hatred. His hatred was the incomplete passage of time. It is easy to forget someone’s hand—even while holding it. What part of himself was he extending? My grandfather was born in Hiroshima, I said. Could it have felt less relevant or true? My obsession is myopic, focused as it is on the city’s destruction, which is also, because I’m American, an obsession with the destruction of the soul. I have a connection to this place, is what I meant, but my connection is that I was there.

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When does a body become a corpse?

Who (or what) determines when a body becomes a corpse?

Is it the same person (or system) who (that) determines when a person becomes a body?

Does a body become a corpse only one time? In only one place?

No, I think ...

It is not only one time. It is not only one place ...

But a series of uncountable arrests ...

An excess of arrests, the limit of arrests ...

Broken through ...

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The Archimimes, among the Romans, were Persons who imitated the Manners, Gestures, and Speech both of the Living and the Dead. At first Archimimes were employ'd on the Theatre; but were afterwards admitted to their Feasts, and at last to their Funerals; where they walked after the Corps, counterfeiting the Gestures and Behaviour of the Person who was carrying to the Funeral Pile, as if he were still alive. (Ephraim Chambers (1680-1740), Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 1728).

What to make of the Archimime? Does the Archimime still exist? Over time, he was given greater ground and space—Theatre to Feast to Funeral—but was anyone appeased by his presence? His presence reinforced the fact that the dead would never again be replicated in life, regardless of the Archimime's talent for replication. The family of the dead had to watch through their grief as the Archimime replicated his own hyperbolic, predictable and finally reductive understanding of life in the wake of the corpse.

For the Archimime, the dead are conceptual (the corpse is conceptual). The corpse and the Archimime are both conceptual, and are negligible, if nonexistent, without application. The Archimime too becomes a concept. A mutation of the first strains: professional fool, attenuated man, he. The spirit of the corpse, distinct from the spirit of the person, is betrayed by the concept, despite it's the concept's (his) talent and task: to perform the Gestures and Behaviour of the dead. But the performance is counterfeiting, it's conceptual art is counterfeiting.

He turns the corpse into a stage, where he, counterfeiting, hastens then abandons the corpse. The ascension is reversed, with the stage the apex of his work. The stage is the equivalent of freedom. Mounting the stage, mounted upon the stage, freedom resembles what it favors. The stage has collapsed and is everywhere, but freedom persists in its most putrescent form, which is also it's most indifferent.

He no longer walks after the corpse, but anticipates it. Anticipating it, he has fallen into an elaborate torpor. He is so contemporary he no longer needs the contemporary—has auto-generated and eaten, defined and defecated, the contemporary—and is already standing on the stage, which is his. When the stage collapses to the ground, it's his ground. Owning freedom, he reiterates, by his own gestures and behaviors, freedom's procedural indifference, and is therefore indifferent to freedom. Though the stage is his, he still wants to be on it, because there is always the next elevation.

I've seen that desperate look. It's the look of a white man abandoned by the world he nevertheless controls. He sees bodies on a stage and throws $$ at the bodies. The gesture of a white man throwing $$ at a body, especially in a deflective and reactionary "attempt" to ease the body's suffering—inherently conflated in the white man's soul with his own self-obsessed guilt—finds its more conspicuous, lurid, and unequivocal twin in the gesture of a white man throwing $$ at a naked dancer. The white man is buying MORE suffering, with which his lucre is codependent. And he would have the skin off too. $$ rains in a void.

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corpse parts
to paste on the eyes, vomit music, which is
quiet and stinks and full of vague balls
flags made of twilight to wrap around anything
sensitive until it smothers.
Amiri Baraka, Sounding

broad summations of vacuums singe my corpse with dangerous intuitions.
Will Alexander, Diary as Sin

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Cruentation: the theory that a murdered person's corpse will bleed in the presence of, or when touched by, the murderer. (Debra A. Meyers, Common Whores, Vertuous Women, and Loveing Wives)

A variation holds that when touched by the guilty, the murdered corpse does not bleed but opens its eyes. (Rosemary Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca)

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Sunken suns
we find strength in carrying flowers to disemboweled corpses
Etel Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse

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A child or an old woman occupies the wake ...

Looking down at the ground, or up at the coffin.

People watch the corpse from windows. The corpse, hidden in a box, is their horizon. The corpse is the distance—the horizon is everywhere. The procession and the island eternalize each other. The sun goes into the lake, or comes out. A second sun follows the first. The lake and the people at the windows are dark at night, blue in the day. They are quiet, hold on.

Self-conscious people carry the box through the streets. The streets are arranged like rose petals.

The child and/or the old woman carry the corpse's shoes. When the procession reaches the grave, the shoes are placed at the corpse's head. A corpse is aware of everything, wrote Jean Genet; the corpse's consciousness laughs at the shoes, but understands the intentions of the living, and appreciates that there are no more feet and a great deal of water between.

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Now even a corpse must be as hard as a star
And as invulnerable, too, in subterranean lakes
—Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, But not an Elegy
(translated from the Russian by Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova)

And over the corpse forget-me-nots burn blue,
clear-eyed daughters of the riverbed.
—Velimir Khlebnikov, The Poet
(translated from the Russian by Paul Schmidt)

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Bodies of schoolchildren were piled up in the community water tanks, and burned bodies were floating on the Ōta River like lumps of charred flesh, with no way of telling which was the front and which the back (Hiroshi Yoshioka) ... Farther on, in the water, floated countless bodies of men, women, and children (Kosaku Okabe) ... Some people were drinking the water. The fire wardens were shouting that it was dangerous to drink water (Sanae Kano) ... A man nearby, using a large fishhook to pull up the shoulders of the dead, looking into the faces of one corpse after another, sighing, This isn't my child (Sakue Shimohira) ... Refugees were trying to climb onto fishing boats to sail upriver to a safer place, but those already on board pushed them off to keep the boats from sinking (Sadako Ueno) ... Bloated bodies were floating in its seven, once beautiful, rivers (Yuriko Sakurai) ... There was a small concrete dam and the number of bodies there was incredible (Senji Yamaguchi) ... Under the Kōjin bridge were floating, like dead dogs or cats, many corpses, barely covered by tattered clothes. In the shallow water, a woman was lying face upward, her breasts torn away and blood spurting (Futaba Kitayama) ... A man by the river whose breath came in feeble gasps, suddenly stood up and cried, Long live the Emperor! and toppled over (Yasuhiro Ishibashi)

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From across the field, a fistful of corpse candles come burning in a loose curve.
—Takashi Hiraide, The Fighting Spirit of the Walnut
(translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu)

Isn’t it true that the buried, anguished corpse has regained its breath
And has returned, harboring its anxiety and fear for revenge?
—Mutsuo Takahashi, These Things Here and Now
(translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles)

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I have not been to the island where my grandfather was born, but I've seen it. I stood on Mt. Misen on Miyajima and looked east, and there, just before the land became clouds, was Kurahashi Island. I felt disorganized, and indistinguishable from the clouds hovering over Hiroshima Bay. The evocation of Hiroshima creates an unwittingly false personal history, but how unwitting?

It took more than three decades to visualize Hiroshima as a city curved along a bay. The seven rivers formed one, and where did it flow? Or to visualize the one river flowing backwards. Hiroshima was a small light in an enormous cloud. The cloud periodically burned away to reveal the light even smaller and clouded from within, like a color that cannot be seen if stared at directly, only while looking away.

Hiroshima is not singular in being several as once, though it stands alone with Nagasaki. We asked everyone we met, Are you going to the memorial? And everyone answered, No.


[SEE ALSO: Notes for National Corpse Month, Part One]

Originally Published: April 7th, 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...