Aux Arcs by Shin Yu Pai
(La Alameda Press, Albuquerque, NM, 2013)
Why Aux Arcs? Several reasons: it is a possible etymology for the Ozarks, which were Shin Yu Pai’s “ground zero” while writing these poems; possibly because there is a park in the Ozarks named Aux Arcs; possibly to distance these poems a smidge from the “genre” of poems of place (to me at least, they do not seems poems rooted in the Ozarks so much as poems written while living there); possibly because “aux arcs” translates to “of the arches”, which can refer to any number of things, including the consciousness of the poet and/or reader as it “leaps” (a leap is an arc is an arch …); possibly because it slantly describes a possible m.o. for the writer, as well as for the reader engaging with these poem; possibly because this is not just a book of poems, it is also a book of photographs, and there are arcs of connection that can be made between the poems and the photos (picture those electrical arcs climbing the Jacobs Ladders in the labs in old monster films); possibly for the pleasure of the pun, because it is a pun as well as an etymology; possibly …
In a certain way, the title is one of the few puzzles of the book, at least in the sense that, except for an occasional word here and there, the poems themselves are not mysterious in the way that contemporary poetry often can be, where words grow opaque … These poems are not opaque. 99% of them “refer”. And the reader knows what they refer to. In fact it has long been one of Shin Yu Pai’s special gifts “to be simple”. And yet … I allude to the Shakers purposefully, because anyone who has looked at a piece of Shaker furniture, say, has realized that there is a mysterious correlation between mystery and simplicity, and that the simple is anything but, qua itself, and as an achievement. It would be half wrong, I think, to say that these poems are deceptive, but watch out.
The first poem in the book that really struck me was “Main Street”, in which some young white boys spit at what I believe not to be a poetic persona alone, but also the poet herself, as she exits the post office. Why do they spit at her? She never says right out, but this reader assumes that it is a racist gesture, tho the poet also notes that it is part of the perennial battle between town and gown. Such gestures are always complex, usually have more than one motive, but I prioritize the racism because of these lines toward the end of the poem:
I am careful when
I try to describe spittle
coming in my direction,
thinking of our next-door
neighbor back “home”
proud to wag
the Southern Cross
noting in more than passing the quotes around home, the subhumanity suggested by wag, one of the very few places the poet allows her anger to show. This lack of the sense of a real home and the restrained anger take what I at least consider to be a heavy toll, as the poem continues and concludes with
displays we bristle
against & those which
we resign ourselves to
In my reading there’s not all that much difference between bristle and resign; in both cases the sense of agency is minimal. The pain doesn’t just pass thru. To quote from the next poem, ‘Black and White and Red All Over”, which is about another encounter with people who are not her people, there are times and places she is “scared witless” …
Though there are a number of other poems, which at least in part reflect this sense of “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”, this is not by any stretch a “Why One Should Hate the Ozarks” manual. In “Gleaners”, Shin Yu Pai describes some “worthless” apples, and notes that once the rind is pared away, there is sweetness beneath. I’m not saying that this is some sort of allegory saying, “Aw, these folks sure are wonderful beneath their rough exteriors,” just that there are pleasures to be had as well as things to bristle against and to resign oneself to.
There is a series of poems running thru the book which widen the scope to that of the world, which is one reason why I suggest that these poems are not all of the Ozarks, but are rather often just poems written there. The first such poem is called “Hybrid Land”, and it’s in three parts. The first begins
recall Country Crock
recall Ocean Mist
and suggests that not only the products of major agribusinesses should be recalled, but the corporations should, too. This follows on a mention of food and Fukushima a few poems earlier, and suggests a concern for what we are doing to the world and our ability to survive in it. The second section resembles the first, and, I note, Joe Brainard’s I Remember, which I’m sure is intentional. It begins:
I remember my mother peeling waxed skins from store-bought fruit.
I remember apples we grew – their skins dull, form misshapen.
The first line clearly alludes back to the dangers of Country Crock, Nestle, etc, while the second looks back to the worthless but sweet (worthless and sweet) apples in “Gleaners”. I suggest that an alternative to our current way of living on this planet is being proposed, and that perhaps a hands-on approach to supplying ourselves with at least some of our food might be in order, even if the products aren’t as “pretty” as those in the market. This section goes on to describe a number of other aspects of growing one’s own food, and suggests to me at least that doing so might help removing the quotes that surround the word home, above. And “I remember” also brings another meaning into play vis-à-vis the first (and third) section’s use of the word “recall”.
Aux Arcs. I am leaping from poem to poem. And making connections. I don’t think this is either accidental or coincidental.
Among the “series” of poems that bring in the whole world are poems such as “Milk Crime”, “Red Shirt Rally”, and “Blackface”. These are presented as fragments of unscrolling text à la the news that rolls across the electronic signboards of Times Square, etc. They neither begin nor end, like the suffering announced by the First Noble Truth. It is very possible that they include found language. It is also worth nothing that “Milk Crime” is another return to the theme of what we are doing to our food.
There are also poems such as “Cull”, which describe in very calm terms some of the outrages we perpetrate on our animal brothers and sisters:
Berton Hernan cites
two crocs &
one capuchin monkey
lost during power
failure in Aldama
twenty-one lechuga ponies
collapse before a match
their bodies shot through
w/ off-label injections
a dead rabbit arrives
in the Chinese mail,
and, as if that’s not enough, the poem continues
an eel is inserted into
the alimentary canal
of an unconscious chef
disemboweled alive; both man
& moray expire
The last words of this poem are “a fraternity”, and in a way that seems to be my major takeaway from this book, that it is a book of poems about living with or sans fraternity in a broken world …
I should not neglect the photographs, which are as striking as the poems. Some of the photos appear to reverberate with nearby poems, as if illustrative somehow. Sometimes there is no way I can relate the photos to the text, and the photos thereby stand alone, in no way subordinate as illustration is or at least often is. They are not listed in the table of contents, so I have no way of judging Shin Yu Pai’s intent. But, to me, they are most often “poems” of their own. I can easily see myself returning to Aux Arcs just to look at them.
John Bloomberg-Rissman has about a year and a half to go on In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press 2010). In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project. The main other thing on his plate right now is an anthology which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg, titled Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Anthology of Outside & Subterranean Poetry, due out from Black Widow Press autumn 014. He's also learning to play the viola and he blogs at www.johnbr.com (Zeitgeist Spam).