Poetica Critique: Shin Yu Pai, "Adamantine"

Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus




Shin Yu Pai, Adamantine.
White Pine Press: Buffalo NY, 2010.



The world of every exemplary artist is larger than the map critics use to plot their course. This makes the landscape larger but the path rougher, and in places even dangerous. Because, by taking what the poet writes about herself as autobiographical, we are bound to get lost in the wilderness between "truth" and "fiction," instead of dwelling in the numinous clearing between them.

As with the second critique in this series, I take as example Matsuo Bashō; here, his last major work, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. (1) Until the diary of his student/traveling companion, Kawai Sora, was published, some three centuries later, it was assumed that Bashō had recorded in his haibun (a combination of prose and poetry) what he had actually experienced. Now we know that he was more interested in creating an enduring work of art than in accurately noting what from his Zen training he knew to be illusionary. Journeys that inspire works of art are always laced with fantasy.

In addition, with a collection as Adamantine, the critic is limited as to which of the fifty poems to discuss, while for the poet each recalls memories spun within a vast web of associations. As psychology and neuroscience tell us, memories are complex and entangled. There are poems I wrote more than forty years ago for which I can still remember where I was and what I was feeling. Like the "spirit road," a thread that leads out from the design of a traditional Navajo blanket, every poem worth one's time is linked to a larger world.

While the life of most offspring is more or less a continuation their parents' values and beliefs, even when there is a brief period of adolescent rebellion, a few strike out on their own. In Adamantine, Shin Yu Pai remembers her father emotional struggle to be accepted in his adopted country:

the Chinese grocery—
the aisle my father refused
to travel down, the path

he would not speak of (2)

Shin Yu Pai not only chose to be known by her Chinese name, but to be initiated into orthodox Buddhist practices:

Pema offers me her own
& it's her name I really want
but instead I must live with

'liberatress of the Buddha' (2)

Buddhism is a recent addition to Turtle Island. So add the Navajo concept of Hozho. As opposed to Naayee, which represents male aggression, so prevalent in American Culture, Hozho is a female way of harmony, balance, a way of "walking in beauty." Pai opines that it is also—

a basis for
           belief in

the collapse of


  into the intimate & the vast (3)

"Mark Anthony Rolo points out that , 'Navajo is a desert language, a language of red rock canyons, pinion pines, willows on the edges of small streams. It's a language of flash floods and scorching summer heat. It's a language of place, and the sadness of losing it is that we lose real knowledge about the desert Southwest that is thousands of years old. "(4)

From a desert in her native land, the poet writes of a monumental work of sacred art, some sixteen centuries old, that stood in another desert, until it was destroyed by religious fundamentalists:

"['on] November 13, 2001, the BBC News reported that Islamic fundamentalists had dynamited the giant Buddhist sculptures that were carved into the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, 'claiming that all statues were false idols and contrary to their Islamic beliefs.'" First mentioned in 5th Century A.D. by the Chinese traveler, Fa-hsien, 200 years later the Buddhist pilgrim monk, Hsüan-tsang, saw the figures decorated with jewels and gold."(5)

Shin Yu Pai sees:

in the pink sandstone cliffs
of the Koh-e Baba Mountains

spent rocket castings,
steel support rods &

shrapnel surround a pair
of yawning outlines

carved from rock, cave
murals coated in dust &

soot, a spray-painted phrase
from the sacred Koran:

the just replaces the unjust (6)

No Hozho here, but a beautiful thought carried out with the ignorance of Naayee violence. Pai ends with: "nothing / can't be blown up." Once again, I recall:

"One morning before sunrise, Roshi appeared in the zendo. A monk handed him a small bell whose handle had broken. Holding the bell as if it were a bird with a broken wing, he looked directly at me. In a voice that seemed weighted with all the burdens of this world, he said in English, “Everything breaks. Everything breaks.” Then he turned and disappeared into the gloom of the cavernous room."(7)



Shin Yu Pai was born in 1975 and grew up in a small town in Southern California. She received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then did graduate work at Naropa University, and at the University of Washington. Pai has moved around the country a lot, living mostly in cities. In a recent interview she speaks of having an "urban sensibility," (8) Striving to write in the concrete particular, this seems only the surface of work grounded in East Asian spiritual metaphysics. As an artist practicing compassion in a world in which guns are becoming more available than food, she's taken an obvious path, one, given the physiognomy she inherited, the name she chose, and the Way she walks, that's expected by both her publishers and public. Entering humanity's shadow side is usually done cleanly, cerebrally, by "witnessing." Such is the case with the iconic self-immolation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who made international headlines protesting the American invasion of his country,

doused in gasoline &
immolated by 4-meter
flames the orange-robed

arhat folded in
the stillness
of full lotus

his body withering
his crown blackening

This horrendous scene took place 12 years before Pai was born. And while all our experience of it as been photographically, at the time, like with the war itself, everyone living in Vietnam and America had a stake in its message. Compare her version to the same scene rendered by the distinguished Japanese poet, and "enlightened" Zen practitioner, Shinkichi Takahashi (1901-1987), which I quote in full:

That was the best moment of the monk’s life.
Firm on the pile of firewood
With nothing more to say, hear, see,
Smoked wrapped him, his folded hands blazed.

There was nothing more to do, the end
Of everything. He remembered, as a cool breeze
Streamed through him, that one is always
In the same place, and that there is no time.

Suddenly a whirling mushroom cloud rose
Before his singed eyes, and he was a mass
Of flame. Globes, one after another, rolled out,
The delighted sparrows flew round like fire balls.

While for Pai it was "a bloodless protest / to awaken the heart / of the oppressor," Takahashi has the authority to get inside the head of the dying monk. Gifted and committed to her art, as poet and photographer, there is something missing in most of these poems. (Of course, something missing is what empowers art!) For I am not only looking for the "precision" for which Pai says she strives (11), but for the depth that marks a poet's mature work.

I trust that this daughter of a farmer hasn't cleansed the earth from under her fingernails, as it was the Chinese Ch'an masters who grounded the metaphysical Buddhism they inherited from India, to be refined later by Japanese Zen. What I am trying to define here is an earthiness that is both tactile and mythological, a language that plants the gods in our imagination, or reaps a revelation of them.

Henry Corbin, philosopher of Islamic mysticism, wrote that

"between the sense perceptions and the intuitions or categories of the intellect there has remained a void. That which ought to have taken its place between the two, and which in other times and places did occupy this intermediate space, that is to say the active imagination, has been left to the poets."(12)

It is not imaginal space that Pai addresses in an 2011 interview, where, speaking of Adamantine, she says: "The poems in the book are deeply informed by the time that I spent studying anthropology. As I've become more engaged in social justice issues in my own thinking and professional interests around oral history, curriculum transformation, and community-based research, these concerns have naturally found their way into my creative work." Nor do these poems work toward "dissolving of the boundary between a poetic 'I' and other," as she opines they do. There is the "critical engagement" she speaks of, but one that, it seems to me, comes from a calculated detachment.



That said. At a time when institutional greed and the murder of innocent people in what the military calls "collateral damage" have become the daily news, Shin Yu Pai is a public intellectual whose political and social concerns are all too rare. With this in mind, I want to dwell on what may be her most accomplished poem in this collection, probably because here Pai is not writing as a tourist, or about an event she read in book or newspaper. There is no cool observer here. Even before the poem begins, its title, "Watching My Father Crush a Black Widow on My Last Day in California," is provocative. To me, it reflects back to some titles of early poems by James Wright and Robert Bly.(13)

The poem begins with a tree being cut down, its "eighty pounds / of amputated wood" being left "to dry on the front lawn." Seeing her father "walk / outside, machete / in one hand & / log in the other," she senses "there will be violence." Her father orders her to "heap sticks & / leaves in the yard." "Orders," is a pivotal word, especially when we remember that this is her last day living under her father's roof.

In the "waste receptacle," she discovers "the insect we were / all conditioned / to fear, as children," suspended upside down in its web. The "red hourglass / marking / her abdomen" identifies the spider as a female Black Widow. Even though it's a hard thing to do, the poet protects the dangerous critter, "piling / wood around her /habitat." Here is Hozho seen in a deadly insect that the female protects it against the wrath of male Naayee. The spider being a female is another possible entrance into the poem's deeper meaning.

But her father has seen it, and "tells me to kill it / with a stick &

when I keep stacking
saying silent mantras
to will the widow away,

he breaks a bough &
stabs until he's pinned her
to the plastic wall

Would that the bough would not break!

The poet covers the insect's body "beneath a mountain / of dead branches." A stupa of sorts. Then she sees life blooms wild around her, triumphant over the murderous act, and how gophers are "tearing / up the lawn" her father "cuts back / with the rusted mower

blades dulled by

sticks & wood
he intends to bury
beneath the ground

once all life has
drained away
beyond any

possibility of

It's as if this, her last day in sunny Southern California, in the sun—in many ancient mythologies, the symbol of a male god—is darkened by her father's aggression. That is, the father is seen as being in the alchemical nigredo stage. However, it is not complete darkness, as Stanton Marlin says,

"there is a hint of a darkness that shines. It is this shine of the paradoxical image that captures my attention. How is it possible to imagine a darkness filled with light or a shine that contains the qualities of both light and darkness?"(14)

Now Pai sees metaphorically "the stump that is my older brother." But there is also redemption, "a darkness filled with light," along with "the mother that / escaped w/her life." (And a daughter who tried to save a spider.)

learning that
either we kill
or be killed

Already on the path toward a more "discriminating awareness,"(15) the lesson Pai learned as a child was no longer viable. Beginning to walk the Middle Way, which is not either/or, but both/and, she was ready to leave the family nest for the rest of the world. (16)


References and Notes:

1- Bashō, M. (2005) "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." In, Basho's Journey. D.L. Barnhill, Translator. Albany: State University of New York Press. The second critique: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/Poetica/blog-2.htm
2 - Pai, S.Y. From, "Anniversary Poem."
3 - Pai, S.Y. From, "Hozho."
4 - Quoted in, "Indian Country Diaries." September, 2006. www.pbs.org/indiancountry/challenges/navajo.html
5 - Weishaus, J. (2007) Review of Gary Snyder's Danger on Peaks. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/Writing/Snyder.htm
6 - Pai, S.Y. From, "Bamyian."
7 - Weishaus, J. (2002) "Two Words." Shambhala Sun. (March)
8 - Pai, S.Y. (2011) "Bloom and Balm: An Interview with Shin Yu Pai." http://www.eclectica.org/v15n1/becker.html
9 - Pai, S.Y. From, "Burning Monk."
10- Takahashi, S. (1986) "Burning Oneself To Death." The Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
11- Pai, S.Y. (2011) "Poetry as Parallel Matter." An Interview by Craig Santos Perez. Rain Taxi (Summer).
12- Corbin, H. (1989) Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran. Princeton: Princeton University Press. For an accessible introduction to Corbin, see, T. Cheetham, "Barzakh, the Opened Field." Sacred Web 27, 2011
13- For example, Wright's famous "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota;" or Robert Bly's, "Thinking of Wallace Stevens on the First Snowy Day in December."
14- Marlin, S. (2005) The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
15- Pai, S.Y. (2011) "Poetry as Parallel Matter." An Interview by Craig Santos Perez. Rain Taxi (Summer).
16-Speaking of the poet H.D., Robert Duncan wrote: "The events of her life are not only personal, but they are also hints of a great universe to which all man's fictions belong." The H.D. Book: The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.