Those professional mourners busy lamenting the current state of the poetry union—too many MFAs, too many first book prizes, too many first books, too many books—will be delighted (or perhaps vexed) to discover poet Shin Yu Pai. Though Equivalence was published by the perspicacious La Alameda Press without the occasion of a prize, Pai attended an MFA program and the book was nourished by a state grant and a visit to the MacDowell colony. And guess what? It’s a terrific, original, clean-lined book, which delivers quite a lot of substance with its polished style—more proof that the institutional support system helping young writers can be good, as opposed to deadly, for poetry.
Shin Yu Pai is also a visual artist—a photograph of hers serves as the book’s frontispiece—and most of these pieces are to some degree ekphrastic. Her descriptive strategies make the source paintings, scrolls, photographs, and sculptures tangibly present, even to those who aren’t familiar with them; then, with flickering subtlety, she shifts aesthetic frames back and forth, placing her speaker and her reader now inside, now outside the works at hand. In “The Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion,” the speaker minutely notes the space:
Entering a darkened room
to pass between sixteen pillars
of equal height and depth,
ten feet high and one foot square
I place my hand against the grain
hold my ear to a pillar
listening for something
like the sound of trees.
This plainspoken yet elegant tone continues, cataloguing “the shine of moss,” “bearded scholars on blankets”; although we are told of “six folded screens/ colored ink and gold on silk,” it is not till the speaker’s breath “clouds the casing” and “the door of the gallery opens” that we realize the speaker has entered not the ‘Orchard Pavilion’ but a gallery where a representation of ‘the Orchard Pavilion’ hangs. This trompe l’oeil effect is both striking and rigorous, briefly allowing us the sumptuous texture of art but denying us the fantasy of dwelling in it.
The borders of art and life are less concretely drawn elsewhere, and one gets the feeling that Pai would like life to resemble art, by means of cultural tradition or religious discipline. These themes underwrite the lovely ‘Cormorant Fishing,’ in which history, art history, lantern making and a fisherman’s unusual method all take turns holding the place of the represented and the real:
six fish pulled from one bird’s throat
ten from another; the evening catch yields
forty pounds of iridescent fish
scales, silver glow on board the boat deck
refracting light transmitted through paper
lanterns illuminating an inner world.
Is this vibrant scene iconography on a paper lantern? Or does the lantern light the ‘real’ scene? The poem opens: “Summer signified for 1,200 years/with the appearance of long boats/adrift along the Nagara River.” Is summer ‘signified’ in the context of art featuring the river, or on the actual river? Given this double context, is the fisherman’s work both life AND art, ‘signifying’ summer even as he plies his trade?
The book seems evenly split between a firm faith that life can hold the orderliness of art and the suspicion that it cannot, and this meditation takes the appropriately mundane form of prose poems. Most optimistic are the poems dealing with romantic love, as when, in ‘An Explanation of Magic,’ a man asks his lover to move his glass, thus accomplishing the ‘trick’ of telekenesis—moving the glass without touching it. More nuanced are those dealing with religious practice, Eastern and Western. Discipline and order break down as a priest slips on a rock during a Baptism, or when a speaker staffs a Buddhist dinner at the home of a socialite:
While searching for a place to store our coats, I open the door to the meditation room, a converted walk-in closet. The hostess sits before a thangka of the Buddha, cross-legged in meditation. The smell of sandalwood and sagebrush permeates the room. Jesus! she exclaims.
While Pai documents various figures’ failure to live up to the models of religion, she is rarely condemnatory, since these tender errors add to a less orderly but perhaps more sweetly designed world. And the speakers’ own conflict in observing these foibles adds further nuance to the poems; after the above-mentioned dinner, the guest of honor appears to the speaker in a dream: “He is stern with me, wagging his finger and shaking his head, warning, Do not speak poorly of your teachers.”
More often than not, Pai turns her attention to art itself, and in her appreciation of artists as diverse as Felix Gonzales-Torres and Mondrian she appears to find models for living more feasible, perhaps, than those offered by religion. In the poem “Equivalent,” based on an installation by Gonzales-Torres,
What you touch,
a piece of hard green candy
pulled from a spill
on the gallery floor,
portrait of a friend
the qualities he gave those
transposed into sweet pile
In Pai’s figuration, the ‘transposition’ of the artist’s life into his work can next be ‘tranposed’ into the life of the viewer, especially the viewer who is herself an artist. The practice of art is thus the solution for living a life as elegant as the art object itself.
The most exciting poems in this ranging and committed book are those that apparently document and examine the development of Pai’s own sensibility. In “Color Study,” we see the first stirrings of a child’s sense of aesthetic inquiry: “She would[…] wonder why tomatoes corresponded to red when red had more in common with umbrellas.” This same speculative energy, in which the visual and verbal are coincident, is then shown to be at work in the adult artist: “She wanted more naturally occurring blue objects. She needed more imagination. She could name more than three if she counted eggplant and hypothermia.” Some of Pai’s poems are themselves works of visual or conceptual art—instructions for art handlers, poems with concrete elements, and, most delightfully, a series of scripts for DIY art:
Lift the blind of the bedroom window.
Place a clear glass bottle
on the window sill.
The painting exists when
the stars have risen.
These poems-as-art form a thrilling current through the volume, because they point up this poet-artist’s depth and potential. Her investigative energy, precise eye, and sense of aesthetic and ethical discipline presage a long career that will be fruitful not just for Pai but for the not-so-moribund state of American poetry.