Home » criticism, Poetry

Elemental Edge

By (April 1, 2011) No Comment


by Shin Yu Pai
White Pine Press, 2010

The term adamantine refers both to a mineral and to a brilliant light reflecting and transmitting properties. One can scarcely imagine a more fitting title for this new volume of poems by Shin Yu Pai, a collection which runs the gamut from stones to light. The compression and energy here move across topics from art (painting, dance, film) to sacrifice, foreign war, eros, healing, intercultural engagement and philosophical reflection, rendering everything Pai encounters with a spare insistence on elemental observations left to shine out, each to the next.

These poems open experiences to reveal essences, and elide these essences of disparate things in order to resonate cellular truth, intermingling below the
level of our workaday names for things and feelings. This is fostered by the deft arrangement of poems. Many are interlinked: an ending detail of one poem is picked up immediately at the start of the next. This is done with a concept, such as letting go, an action such as burning, or an object, for example a stone or a mouse. This interlinking is reminiscent of the effect possible in the formalism of the sonnet wreath, in which the last line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next.

Yet we are far from sonnets here. In most of these poems the lines are exceedingly short, often three or four words, with stanzas of two or three lines. This form allows details to tumble out and accumulate imagiste-style, in the manner of Pound’s early experimenting that gave vitality and precision to modern verse. Here is the start of the poem “Footprint”:

the sledge-hammered crown
of Akshobya stolen

from Shentong Monastery’s
Four Gate Pagoda,

his throat slit with saw

(if you meet the Buddha
on the path, kill him)

bought on the black market

by devotees, & donated to
the head of the Dharma Drum order

Master Sheng Yen sees
past the icon, a non-

attachment to form:
animal skin stretched over

hollow shell, a head
broken away from its body

remembering how the holy
prince was once pictured

in ancient art –
by his footprint alone

These poems are pages of notes torn from the notebook of the heart, with the lithe quickness of an exotic animal that tracks the soul across the page, trusted and freed to range rapidly, safe in the knowledge that everything it lights upon will be rendered pure. These tracks of lines are faintly reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’ Patterson in their swiftness, but spill far beyond Williams’ borders – and his sometimes insistent shallowness of remaining on the surface of things. The territory over which Pai’s tracks wander is not that of middle America, but the deeper, sensual and vast territory of what she identifies in one of her poems (in a term popularized by David Lynch) as the Inland Empire.

Her sensuality is also infused with other traditions. Facility with haiku is apparent just under the surface, although almost never does it bubble up here into an actual 5-7-5 haiku. An exception comes late in the sequence of poems entitled “Exposition”, with this haiku: “BBQ chefs tend cook fires, / wait staff light fuel cells / launching heart-shaped lamps – let go”. Yet in this coherent volume, Pai manages otherwise to steer clear of the haiku form, the packaging of which so often tends toward a delimited profundity, in favor of a free-ranging lucid consistency flitting into and through spontaneously created forms. These forms are bound on one edge by a smooth lyric sensibility and on the other by a tendency toward the avant-garde in her experimenting with artistic forms and arrangements of words.

Just as with the mineral adamantine, one thing illuminates another in these poems. For example, “Model Minorities” is, on the surface, about a girl who recognizes that an Asian shooter on a rampage is probably her brother. Yet rather than sensationalizing this tabloid-style, the poem reflects inwardly on the shared underlying tensions that produced such behavior:

the year her brother
broke down, she was

still in high
school, seventeen –

w/ a taste for cutting
not class but hands

& arms any outlet
to escape

this “community”

Rather than expressing shock, the girl narrator in the poem reflects instead on the conditions of the expatriate Asian community that led to the attack, tensions that she also shares, giving a startling empathetic slant to the whole.

One high point of this volume is the poem “Dropping Through El Dorado Gap”, which Pai wrote by sharing and refining two- and three-line stanzas via email together with a writer friend. This form of collaboration in Japan is called a renga. Sensuality grips its elemental edge; stunning raw sinewy meanderings of white-hot images alternating and fusing outer journey and inner experience. From illness, to renewal in a narrow passage through a mountain, Pai’s poetics culminate in a burst of petals catalyzed by healthy arousal. Here is an excerpt from the middle of this poem:

the evening star hurts him
dropping through El Dorado gap

fragrant hair
resinous as Great Basin sage
spooky all night frost dreams

rain turning overnight to ice
she slips & loses her footing

moon high on the Ganges
a sickle on each
frozen hair blade

damaged cells in the bloodstream
the body slowly shutting down

aching, chattering,
under blankets all night –
dawn brings a winter eagle

shoulder blades pulled wide in
garuda, the spine elongating

Observations of the physical journey overlayed on the inner journey of sickness become fused here with the “sickle”, which is both a reflection of the moon on the resinous hair turned frozen during the icy night, as well as a description of the cancerous cells in the blood. By staying focused tightly on imagistic details, such as the aching and chattering, Pai continues this fusion of both scenes at once beautifully through the rest of the poem.

Another sustained highlight is a reflective sequence of poems interweaving reflections on a marriage with Buddhist themes. Even the titles here tell so much: “Altar”, “The Diamond Path”, “Chop Wood, Carry Water”, “Lucky”, “Chokes”, “Anniversary Poem”. Small telling details of disillusion are stripped of melodrama and treated as any other images, rendering them as stoic parallels to the discipline of a Buddhist path. For example, here in the start of the poem “Lucky”, Pai expresses her feeling of inadequacy with plants, letting the fumbling ritual stand for her feelings of loss in the marriage:

stick after stick
our marriage bamboo
withers, handwritten

wishes slipping
into stink water,

I trim back roots,
& place near light

sponge-like mold
claims yet another
yellow-mottled victim

rehydrate w/ filtered
water, replant
evergreen grafts

we always knew
I wasn’t born w/
a natural talent

for nurturing plants,

Reading Adamantine in sequence is indeed like holding a handful of precious gems that glint in many directions. The more we settle into this volume, the more we feel the themes expand because of Pai’s ability to freely experiment in form. We enter a space in which disparate forms and themes can be treated without a loss of consistency, because an elemental integrity of earned close observation — such as portrayed above in the tensions of the Asian community or disillusion in marriage – holds throughout the work.

Some poems here are so delicate it feels as if they’d burst like a bubble if rashly grasped. “Spring Peepers, Summer Flowering” is one such as it flits across the page (flitting not reproduced here):

invisible singers / awaken from winter / slumber under logs, / loose bark / of bodies / at the edge / of water / sounding courtship songs // my father and I / share a memory of / staying awake to witness / the night-blooming cereus / white queen flower / a balm for the heart / blooms in the backyard / just once before withering

This is a confident volume by a poet clearly flowering. Engaging with it renders the world around us the work of astonishing beauty that it really is. Adamantine peels back a surface of appearances to reveal interactions of light and thought with an almost biological keenness, accumulating, with Pai’s gift for composition, back into the waking world we think we know.

Andrew Singer is a poet and short story writer, illustrator, cultural journalist and university instructor based in Budapest. A graduate in Poetry from the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, he is currently hard at work on his first novel.