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Shin Yu Pai's AUX ARCS

Fresh off the presses today is Shin Yu Pai's latest poetry collection AUX ARCS (La Alameda Press, 2013).



The book takes its name from the Ozarks, a distinctive geological region in the American South, and a central theme throughout is the landscape, both geographical and social, of the South. Interestingly, the origins of the name Ozarks are uncertain. The term aux arcs serves as folk (faux) etymology, suggesting linguistic corruption of French and the messy intertwining of language, cultures, histories, and peoples that makes up the Americas. Pai's use of AUX ARCS as the title of the collection participates in this sort of genealogical excavation of naming and knowing.


Enchanted Rock, Llano Uplift, TX, digital photo, 2010.


AUX ARCS is both a textual and visual poetic collection, with photographs by the author dispersed throughout. Even before the first poem, just after the copyright page, is an image of broad land from the high vantage point of Enchanted Rock in Texas. The image is open and inviting. In the book, the photographs are not labeled, encouraging contemplation of what is in the image and how the image might connect with the ideas and words of the textual poems. A list at the back of the book provides the captions with location and other image information.


Skull & air conditioning unit, Lake Tawakoni, TX, mobile phone photo, 2006.


After the dedication page and before the first poem is a second photograph, one that signifies Texas with the skull of a Texas Longhorn steer mounted on the outside of a wooden structure next to the protruding backside of an air conditioning unit. The iconic image of the skull, reminiscent of a Wild West ethos and nostalgia, intriguingly sits jarringly next to an image of modernity and the fending off of excessive summer heat.

"Inner Space," the first poem of the collection, follows this image, bringing the speaker of the poem to "the cavern where / my Texan mate takes me to find / relief from heat." The relief of the cool interior space belies the speaker's thoughts of
                the Permian
floodwater maze that claimed

the lives of Ice Age species, mammoth

armadillo and sabre-toothed cat,
swamped in quicksand
The references to a geologically distant past and extinct species that once roamed the region, coupled with the idea of the inner space as a retreat from the outside heat, echo the skull and air conditioner image. The past and the modern collide in both the poem and the image, and the apparition of death (in the Longhorn skull and in the memory of extinct creatures, knowable to modern scientists only in their excavated skeletons) lingers in the presence of the present.

A number of the poems deal explicitly with Asian American presences in the American South and with the jarring experience of racial bias in a region still thought of generally as one divided into (simply) black and white. "Main Street" witnesses white teenage boys who spit at the speaker of the poem as she exits the post office in town, caught in her thoughts of an academic world supposedly more distanced from everyday gestures of racism. "Black and White and Red All Over" takes the image of "the boy with a scarlet dyed / mohawk" and his siblings/friends wearing "the red & white jerseys / emblazoned w/ wrathful ridge-/ backed peccaries" (a reference to the Arkansas Razorbacks), framing these boys as threatening with a reference to "their shaved heads" (possible skinheads?) and their clustering behavior. The poem ends with images of animals and the observation, "aware more than ever I am / scared witless by wildlife." It is not so much the dogs and cats and hantavirus she mentions that seem to truly terrify her, though, but the mentality of college sports fans.

A more playful poem, "Peabody Ducks," spreads words across the page in meandering fashion, exploring the famous ducks of The Peabody hotel in Memphis. The poem, however, also points to the somewhat unsavory history of ducks in the hotel. The first ducks there were live decoys (restrained or maimed to prevent their flight) used by duck hunters, who placed them in the hotel's fountain for fun. Pai's poem suggests that despite the domestication of ducks in this hotel space, they "hold true to their avian traits" and keep "one orb always open, / against predators."

Many of the poems also take food and the changing cultures of food as topics. "Hybrid Land," for instance, catalogs food products in a list:
recall Country Crock

recall Ocean Mist

recall Frontera

recall Nestle
The injunction to recall the products suggests both meanings of the word--either to remember these brands or to call it back due to defects. The next page of the poem turns on memories of more organic food practices:
I remember my mother peeling waxed skins from store-bought fruits.

I remember apples we grew — their skins dull, form misshapen.

I remember holes pecked by bird beaks scarring unripe peaches.

I remember the sweet stink of guavas rotting on the earth.

I remember pulling chives from the garden with my father.
The poem contrasts the sterility of packaged products on the shelf and the messiness of growing fruits and vegetables.

Other poems in the collection relate aspects of Asian American history and culture, such as a poem about the "Iron Chink," a fish-cleaning machine made to displace Asian immigrant and Indigenous workers in the Pacific Northwest canneries. "On Seeing Roger Shimomura's Crossing the Delaware" offers a reflection on Shimomura's well-known revisionist painting and the cultural politics of morality, education, and history in U.S. schools.


Agora, Chicago, IL, digital photo, 2012.


There are many other wonderful poems in this collection. They range widely in geography, across the Americas and Asia. They touch on different topics, often examining the histories of things and places to shed light on contemporary circumstances and social relations. One section of poems focuses on animals, especially the control of them such as putting dogs down in shelters to control population ("Cull") or arranging them in museums as objects of knowledge ("Natural History").


Adapations, Iowa City, IA, digital photo, 2010.


I'd be remiss as a crazy dog person not to end with a few lines from "Working Dog, Do Not Pet," a thoughtful poem about the balance of domestication and wildness in dogs:
the cattle dog
has no intimates
her duty is
to guard

to reach a hand
beyond the electric
safety fence might be

to have it bitten off
This collection of poems is expansive in its reach and its observations. While most of the poems are short, lyric verses of just a page, they each and collectively sketch out perspectives of the world that are insightful, scratching below surface understandings and connecting complicated, hidden histories to physical, observable presences.

Order a copy from the wonderful Small Press Distribution.
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