The first release from the exciting new collaborative-poetry series of Tin House and Octopus books, Brandon Shimoda’s Portuguese has its origins in a racial slur. As Shimoda explains in the epilogue: “The bus is driving itself. Floating. Out the windows the trees are thick green, with passing revelations of yellow and brown. The fourth grader makes one final attempt, though his enthusiasm, at this point, feels forced: Portugueeese. He brings his pointer fingers to the sides of his eyes, pulls the skin to make his eyes disappear, and says it once more.”
Portuguese is a kind of broken narrative of poetics, connected in some ways to the 1990 “pale blue dot” image, taken of the earth from 3.7 billion miles away. Exposed as a barely perceptible blip on the horizon of our unknown galaxy, the “pale blue dot” seems to say we are nothing, we are a speck, we are minutia, extraneous and redundant, collapsible. Shimoda writes from this same focal point of insecurity and yet existence, the way of being both told or pushed into a corner, made nearly invisible, all the while knowing his capabilities and meaning, the truth of living vibrant at his core:
“A single minority will ever be served / A moment of actual attention / As long as there are promos and white balloons / Short glasses of flat beer / Shelves of anglicizations competing with oh but friendly / Reparation the briefest of excuses, the one least likely to stop”
In this way, Shimoda is writing an extremely specific, ethnic presence in Portuguese, but also a very universal, human experience. Shimoda uses this timidity, this struggle to be, the low-visibility living beneath so much ethnic and existential storming, to make Portuguese into a triumphantly relatable poetic barrage. Portuguese is as if our photo albums, our staircases lined with family portraits and ancestry, our visual lineages framed and glossy (or grainy) up on our walls are poetically re-imagined into a “pale blue dot” of experience zoomed both into and outward from, made accessible from a wealth of angles, from all sides and sounds.
“Let’s take ourselves out / For a night on the earth, and forget / All the rest—the bullet ripping through the cheek, smashing the jaw / Traveling down the spinal cord / And into the lodge of the shoulder—everyone / Still wants to enter / The throat of another—that is where / We shall take our rest, this is where / Good memories dwell, with a face / Bulging out of another face”
As co-editors of this new series, Matthew Dickman (Tin House) and Zachary Schomburg (Octopus) correctly assert “Every word is a complicated choice—Shimoda has the faculty to say anything, as if all the words are good and all are on the table,” a style of poetry not typically automatically accessible, but Shimoda’s tightly focused energy mixed with a widened field of view makes Portuguese a book easy to begin a relationship with.
Until now, Tin House and Octopus Books have been separately managing their expanding oeuvres, yearly adding new and important works to the canon-on-the-fringe (read: the most important kind of literature). But with Portuguese, these Portland presses will forever be linked as co-publishers of a new series that clearly promises to showcase the strengths of each of their respective talents, and the wondrousness that occurs when two electric and author-centered publishing houses join forces to evolve anew.
“At a time when many larger presses are thinning their poetry rosters, we wonder if publishing collaboratively is a model these presses are missing out on, a model that smaller independent presses are capable of, because there is nothing to lose in teaming up to publish books for a multiplied and overlapped audience. This is a model that is necessary for a new kind of conversation to begin, not to see how we can meet in the middle, but how we can meet at the edges”