Shin Yu Pai
La Alameda Press
Perfect Bound, 112 pgs
Reviewed by Gerry McFarland
Aux Arcs, Shin Yu Pai’s newest collection of poetry, reveals human experience in all its complexity, and in forms that shape-shift to individual purposes. The poems are striking in apparent simplicity, yet her use of language, lines, and space within lines, simultaneously simplify and enhance her objective. These poems are landscapes of language, word sculptures, admirable in their elaborate construction, yet fluid in the ease with which they become infused with universal themes.
Through repetition, use of space on the page, and playfulness with words, the poet illustrates the recurrence of innate, human dilemmas, opposing needs, relationships, and even politics. Most touching is the balance that results when human motivations clash, or push gently against each other, when human virtues oppose.
For example, in “First Response,” about the rescue of Chilean miners trapped underground more than a month, whose experience became an international media event, she returns to a main theme in the book: moments when individuals, or groups of individuals, address opposite needs. “First Response” reveals a transcendent observation when opposition and reconciliation seem simultaneous.
a country’s first response
estamos bien en el refugio los 33
first contact — the grainy
image: miners beaming,
meeting his newborn
infant over a remote video
The slanted stanzas along with the artful spaces within the lines seem made to tell this breathless story.
one miner puts up a retaining wall
around his house
the people of Copiapo
meant to raise a site
to interpret the story survivors yearn to bury
The public yearns to honor the men’s dramatic survival; not all the traumatized men embrace their new notoriety.
Aux Arcs is a beautifully laid out book. Sections are untitled, separated by a well-varied selection of fine black and white photographs. Politics, for example, is addressed directly in its own section, marked at the beginning with a photograph of an old Ringling Brothers horse-drawn circus cage, cardboard cutouts of tigers its only captives.
In this section “Red Shirt Rally” describes government suppression in a square block of words, single-spaced, in one sentence, suggesting an immutable force, the blunt fist of oppression. It is a complex poem, describing an intricate belief system of how to express dissent after a coup:
by donating plasma from their vital humors—to make a monk
bleed is one of the most cardinal sins . . .
These last lines kill:
one million units, so much blood could ‘save many lives’ spilled
before Parliament, red fluid froths & clots across concrete
“Tienanmen Square, 2009,” presents a brief, almost comic piece showing the endless dilemma of a people’s resistance to its government’s unthinking, bland, automatic response, incomprehensible to American liberalism, a dilemma that also seems irreconcilable. Below is a section of it:
Chairman Mao’s visage
wheatpasted & restored
after every incident
of disfigurement, depleting
a storeroom depot
A black and white photo of a shower stall marks the end of this section, as if waiting to cleanse the soul.
From another section, in “Natural History,” a botanist captures an insect
but I have no chemicals
at my disposal when
I enclose the angry wasp
beneath a jelly jar
pinned against glass,
wondering if it’s possible
to come to the aid
of the living.
The poet seems to suggest the consistency of dilemma. She asks questions of us. It is less a dilemma in this poem than a question posed to the exclusion of any answer, suggesting there is no easy answer.
In “Some People Have a Hard Time Getting Numb,” the poet tells a story about an encounter with a dentist who explains how oral health can have an effect on her unborn child. Even in the dentist’s chair, Shin Yu creates an illuminated balance (her emphasis):
sometimes it’s not enough
to feel the metal probe
to receive the hurt.
In “s t a r s h (r) i n e” Shin Yu shows us her love of word play, enough fun to remind us that poetry is, after all, about language.
altar / alter / alma
mater / matter / mutter moonward /
murmur / muster / muscle /
muse / mute
Several poems in the book are in stanzas, but the most fun is from the word play and the variety of forms. Below is a section from “Peabody Ducks”:
bathe preen loaf & dabble
one orb always open,
aves up in the clouds
Even in this lighter poem, there is a sense of the observer, the poet herself, translating the moment, reminding us that poetry is not simple, whether it concerns a list, word play, or a duck in the water. By being observed, it is a human situation.
Shin Yu has shown us a remarkable range in subject matter and style in her poetry and work as a visual artist. The shapes of the poems are often spacious. She has shown here that all things in her poetic universe are elements of a kind of human geography, the use of space within.
Gerry McFarland recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing through the Rainier Writer’s Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington. He is a co-editor at Floating Bridge Press in Seattle, and teaches writing at University of Phoenix. His work has appeared in Talking River, Zyzzyva, Sanscrit, Crab Creek Review, Crucible, Bayou, Limestone, and several others. He was awarded the 2005 Sam Ragan Prize and was a finalist in the 2003 WinningWriters.com War Poetry Contest.