Vibrant hybrid. Interplay of text and visual art. Graphic continuity. Circularity. Art as a practice. Threads of poetry and memoir/essay. Poetry as offering. Performance as community building. Photographic documentation. Synthesis of cultures. Collaboration. Explanatory prefaces. No stone left unturned. Give credit where credit is due.
How appropriate that the book Ensō is being released at the beginning of a new decade, as poet, essayist, photographer, book artist, and curator Shin Yu Pai weaves two decades of poetry projects into a visual meditation regarding her varied artistic activities.
The title, Ensō, refers to a sacred symbol in Zen Buddhism meaning circle, or circle of togetherness, and symbolizes the artist’s acceptance of innermost self. Both the title and the repeated graphic that begins each section serve the collection thematically, representing sun and moon, passage of time and the unity of beginning and ending.
Hybrid in both cultural presentations and in terms of literary genre, Shin Yu Pai mindfully narrates her patient but zealous artistic journey. Each of the ten sections begins with a circular ensō graphic, as well as with a textual preface and narrative. It is as if Pai inserts a background creation story at each major turn, thus making the presentation resemble a good poetry reading or book launch where the reader comes away with appreciation for the path the artist took to arrive at each piece, whether visual art or poetry. The photo documentation completes the package and ensures that some of Pai’s less permanent projects will garner wider and longer appreciation.
From the get-go, Pai announces how early on in her career when she worked at the Dallas Museum of Art, the work of German artist, Wolfgang Laib, began to influence her own lifelong practice and led her to conceive of art as a spiritual act. We read her first poem, “Devotion,” which encompasses the meaning of an aesthetic experience as “I roll the ball of golden wax / between my thumb and forefinger.” In this prose introduction, she describes the similarity of a later 2018 visit to Bhutan for her current work with Atlas Obscura, where she encounters visual and tactile artifacts. Such circularity unifies Pai’s years and works.
Her engaging prose continues, “As a project, Ensō traces the evolution of my creative practice and the many parts of the work that have helped to sustain an artful life. I was not attached to being a poet, but interested in using the instrument of language to make sense of the world. It has seemed fitting that this exploration should take more than one form, ever conscious of the presence and absence of language, the medium to which I feel most connected in spirit.”
In the book’s first section, “Sixteen Pillars,” Pai introduces the concept of viewing art over time as well as observing how people interact with the artwork and the spaces in which it resides over periods of time. A slower pace enables viewing art as an offering or act of devotion. With her parents’ immigration to the United States, they inculcated in her an appreciation for her Asian heritage, with forays to experience Asian art collections. Her artistic mother and poetic father modeled how she would delve into the visual and semantic art world she both creates and curates.
In the poem, “The Gathering at the Orchard Pavilion,” we encounter Pai writing multiple poems over time about a single piece of art, while viewing the artwork’s observers. She studies herself as well, “My breath clouds the casing / as I think of humidity / and the desire to touch.” Although this poem introduces ekphrastic poetry, there is a later entire section, “The Ekphrastic Impulse,” devoted to it. All these poems add to the narrative arc of the book and give readers expanded vistas for approaching not only Shin Yu Pai’s art, but also that of others.
Pai’s narrative reads as chunks of memoir that annotate poems, photos, and projects. She is curating her own art life. Sharing how she began to learn the Japanese tea ceremony at Naropa and became a student of tea-ceremony master Ikka Nakashima while in Chicago, we get a sense of Pai’s belief in art as practice. She writes in the poem, “Reproduction:”
I visit artworks in museums
like favorite family members
finding comfort in the fact
that nothing’s changed
The book’s section titled, “Haiku Present,” documents Pai’s developing relationship distilling haiku and her habit of reaching out to other artists for collaborative projects. She explains that because of her background in Taiwanese and Mandarin languages, she didn’t grow up with a base of English as a metrical language and has steered clear of some poetic forms and prose. However, Pai demonstrates linguistic and spatial arrangement variety that add to the beauty of her poetry. She writes that her “go-to form has always been haiku,” with compression as the basis for an “observational poetics.” While at McDowell Colony, she participated in poetic conversations forming the basis for collaborative haiku projects. Ensō contains a lovely 5X7 haiku insert, reminiscent of those projects. Her haiku practice deepened and expanded to involve writing with other poets. She writes that she “uncovered its roots in communal writing, it’s become a form that sustains me.” She describes incorporating haiku in teaching children and along bike trails in Redmond, Washington, where she did a two-year stint as city Poet Laureate, 2015-2017.
Often, Pai’s poetry can be read both literally and metaphorically. Her poem, “Practice,” depicts how with an exacto knife “day after day / heaps of words piling / up on my writing desk” in a poetry/art bookproject.
While the book’s fourth section, “Mothering Time,” focuses on a sensitive topic, “I conceived a child whom I lost,” and dealing with grief, the book’s fifth section, “Heirloom” shifts into fruits of motherhood as she bears a son and nurtures his development. This section of the book shares how the author incorporated stencil art in a pioneer apple orchard in Seattle to create poetry. The project instilled a further appreciation of time since her child was growing and the apple orchard project was impermanent. Photos of the project and of her young son’s inclusion accompany an abecedarian series of poems that both inform and delight. For example, the letter “Q” has no poem but is a Qr code that takes the reader to Pai’s website with more about the Heirloom project. Earlier in the abecedarian poems in the book, we read the poem, “Lore:”
heirs of the wild
apples of Tian Shan,
celestial peaks, producers
of the Almaty,
“Alma-Ata” – almighty
of Apples carried
along the Silk Road
in the bellies of beasts.
The book’s seventh section, “Same Cloth,” was written in reaction to a 2016 news story about Leona Coakley-Spring, a black business owner, while Pai was Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. The owner found a Ku Klux Klan robe among donations to her consignment shop. Pai asks, “Is it a hate crime?” How to deal with this incident? We see in the book a copy of a poetry broadside upon which the artist-poet embroidered her poem about the racial incident, with red stitching on white organza fabric, creating a “concrete remembrance that could invite a deeper reflection on the impact of doing others harm.”
Pai writes in her prose narrative that she reacted intensely to this racial incident near Seattle because of prior escalating racial micro-aggressions aimed at her while she lived in San Marcus, Texas. “While completing ‘Same Cloth’ didn’t minimize the trauma in my early life, it felt like a transgressive act. A way to revisit a wound that I needed to move beyond in order to take up space anew. And rectify being made invisible so many years ago.” As Pai was Poet Laureate, her red-stitched broadside incorporated involvement with and consideration of her role in community. Pai’s art became a vehicle for self-expression and healing. The poem, “Same Cloth,” speaks of the hate crime and red embroidery threads increase impact of the poem:
there are people here who will hurt you
a veiled threat that burns
bright as any wooden cross
planted in the earth as if
to stake a claim, what if we
were to sow seeds of
solidarity for a stranger
public “victim of a hate crime
the “black business owner”
who believed the best about
Three more sections include visual and poetic collaborations with other visual artists in “Making Books,” “Animating the Text” and “Heyday,” Pai demonstrates her belief in engaging art as interplay that engages and expands the scope of art. Her contemplative prose adds that “Since making Heirloom, I’ve been more interested in the interplay of environment and text. I surrender my attachment to the control afforded by the written page to bring poems into a world they can inhabit, while being shaped by chance.” Art projected on the back of Redmond’s three-story City Hall during a winter festival was a graphic collaboration to focus on reading poetry “where the words of my poems took the shape of fallen logs, root networks, and visual references to trees.” Photo documentation in Ensō continues to bring life to the text.
As in the beginning of the book, Pai describes effects of the interplay of time, space and audience regarding visual art. In the final sections she discusses the intersection of audience with poetry, even in terms of improvisation. “Now the unscripted improvisational is something I pay more attention to as an artist.” The varieties of text and visual art in this book create texture and substance while engaging the senses.
In the poem, “Splintered,” she refers to working on site-specific art with a sound artist at a barn in Mt. Vernon, Washington, in 2019. Pai includes the book’s title when she writes of sound and form as well as her process, her practice “where the mind / wishes for glass even / in incompletion, the ensō”
This collection is coming full circle to the book’s tenth and final section “ENSŌ.” This Japanese word suggests both a beginning and an end for Shin Yu Pai’s lovely compilation of words and images. In the long multi-layered poem of the same name, we read of Japanese daruma dolls and the custom of dotting the eye of the daruma doll. While grieving loss of her teacher, Sensei Nakashima, Shin Yu Pai juxtaposes this grief over her exposure to the discomforting death of a squid used for art prints. Later in the poem, the speaker observes children watching the struggle of spawning salmon at Seattle’s Carkeek Park:
a child sees this ceaseless cycle
as an augury of death
No, she says,
they are completing their lives
What a joy to read to the completion of this rich and varied collection of literary and visual art by Shin Yu Pai! It is a beautifully presented hybrid work that’s sure to be appreciated by those who love the aesthetics and the communal aspects of multiple artistic genres, including poetry and the visual arts. It is a book that honors the practice of making art over time.
Mary Ellen Talley’s poems have appeared widely in publications including Raven Chronicles, Flatbush Review, and Banshee, as well as in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have received two Pushcart nominations. Book reviews by Talley appear online and in print journals, such as Colorado Review, Compulsive Reader, Crab Creek Review, Sugar House Review and forthcoming in Empty Mirror.