Friday, April 27, 2018

Poems: Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu Pai
(Seattle Review of Books)

Back in 2008, the multi-talented Shin Yu Pai published a book of collected poems entitled Sightings: Poems 2000-2005 with 1913 Press. Comprising a range of formal, material and textual experiments, it also showed her to be both an artist at heart and in her practice. The poems were mostly brief, political, playful, and never repetitive, marking her out as as someone not following the main experimental crowds. After reading Sightings, I added her to my list of poets to follow, and I have, including blogging her poetry several times, once for her baseball poems in 2011 (scroll past the break), and once for a very witty still life poem in 2012. She has since published several more full collections of poems, including AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013) and Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), two of whose poems I quote below, as well as limited edition artist books, works on paper, photography, and collaborative projects of various kinds.

In 2015, the poet and scholar Michael Leong curated a collection of poems about visual art, "Lines of Sight," by nine Asian American writers for the Asian American Writers Workshop's The Margins journal. One of the poets he included was Shin Yu Pai, and when I remembered that she was one of the poets--the others were Christine Wong Yap, Debora Kuan, Eileen Tabios, Jennifer Hayashida, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (whom I highlighted earlier this month), Walter K. Lew, O Woomi Chang, and John Yau (whose work will close out the month--I said that I would have to include her here. (Please do check out the entire portfolio.)

Michael featured four of Pai's poems, but to whet readers' interests and encourage that you head over to AAWW's website I'm only going to feature two, both from Adamantine. The first is entitled "Lunch Poem," which immediately made me think of Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) and his eponymous, beloved collection, but when you the photograph her poem is in conversation with, her poem's title becomes clearer, shaking off (a bit) the New York School avatar's influence. Instead, we are exploring Indian artist Subodh Gupta's hanging sculpture, a shiny excrescence whose surface appears to be both bumpy--all those fissures between the pails--and, from a short distance, a silvery, pulsating button.

In this poem, Pai plays with the lunch pails and boxes the image invokes, the vast world those pail carriers index, opening with a statistic about how rare it is that they "[go] missing." It is brief enough to be a poem she might have thought up and mulled over during a lunch-time exploration of it, whether it hung in an art museum or a wall near wherever she was spending any time. The poem itself bells like a vessel--a bit plumper here than on The Margins site because of my lack of kerning tools--that has been filled, or, by its end, by author and reader, like the lunchtime diner, emptied.


by Shin Yu Pai

(after Subodh Gupta)

             to one: the delivery that

        goes missing – a lunch pail that fails

        to arrive @ its destination; domestic

       articles bear homemade offerings produced

    by housewives & dadi jis for their men-folk –

        fleet-footed dabbawallas dispatch, carry,

    & collect steel boxes by the thousands packed

         lunch boys sport starched cotton nehru

         caps pilot familiar passages – the son

       of a railway guard solders stainless-steel

              tiffin carriers a new class

                     of metalwork

Subodh Gupta. Untitled, 2008,
Stainless steel, Houston Museum of Art.
(Photo: Deena DeNaro-Bickerstaffe.)

The second poem is entitled "Bell(e)," and speaks to an actual ornamental bell, by the late Japanese-American artist Toshiko Takaezu, produced in 1997, and one of many she produced during her career. Pai's title injects a bit of polysemy through that final "e," making the word French as well as English, and highlighting the beauty inherent in Takaezu's sculpture, with its patinated surface color and graceful, parabolic form. That silent "e" also embodies the silence and latent sound to be released, once the bell sounds...its beautiful sounds.

"Bell(e)" tells in swift strokes about how such a bell might have been handled "in centuries / past," but now it hangs in what looks like a greenhouse, "a museum / of curative plants." Where the poem goes is beyond description to an evocation of the bell(e)'s potentiality, as I note above, showing the reader its anticipation--and ours--of its "stillness & / gathering before / the shudder / of first sound," that is, when it finally is rung or struck, how it dreams of the sounds within sounds that will come, or that reappear, as part of and after that reverberation, like the poem itself.

Here is a short paragraph about Takaezu from Wikipedia (linked above):
Takaezu treated life with a sense of wholesomeness and oneness with nature; everything she did was to improve and discover herself. She believed that ceramics involved self-revelation, once commenting, "In my life I see no difference between making pots, cooking and growing vegetables... there is need for me to work in clay... it gives me answers for my life."[5] When she developed her signature “closed form” after sealing her pots, she found her identity as an artist. The ceramic forms resembled human hearts and torsos, closed cylindrical forms, and huge spheres she called “moons.”
The bell pictured below is an "open" ceramic forms, but its capacity for "self-revelation," and its connection to nature are both aspects that Pai discerns in her poem.


After Toshiko Takaezu


in centuries
past, sunk
beneath soil

to draw earth’s
vital force, inert
vessel of

sound + light,

in a museum
of curative plants
the moment of

stillness &
gathering before
the shudder

of first sound

the shake of chime
hum &

g o n g

Toshiko Takaezu. Bell (1997). Seattle’s Volunteer Park
Conservatory. (Photo courtesy Myra/Flickr.)

Both poems, Copyright © Shin Yu Pai, from Adamantine, White Pine Press. Buffalo, NY 2010. All rights reserved.

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