The title of Shin Yu Pai’s most recent book belies the deftness and flexibility of the poems within. While the poems might resemble gemstones (such as diamonds) in luster, they do not share the same impenetrable hardness. Rather, they split wide open again and again, addressing “what’s nearest to/ the human heart” (104). In fact, the word “heart”—with its many contexts and connotations—appears repeatedly throughout the book, as the poet considers and reconsiders the facets of what exists within our minds, bodies, landscapes, and relationships.
The speaker in the opening poem asserts that “the human heart is/ a wholly different animal,” (11) and many of the poems that follow examine what this means. In considering heart-related matters, there are love and marriage, of course: the lover’s heart and “the stone of my engagement” (53). More literally, there are the sweet centers of a well-loved vegetable:
touch the rewards
of digging below choke
to find the disc-like glass
of a clean heart. (59)
There are also the exposed entrails of the cadavers on display with “Body Worlds” (74), a traveling exhibition of preserved human bodies, which was controversial not only because it was a public display of human remains, but because of how the cadavers were acquired: “stolen from mental hospitals/ the undocumented bodies// of…executed” prisoners in China.
And there is a monk’s “bloodless protest/ to awaken the heart/ of the oppressor” (18), Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation to bring attention to the government’s persecution of Buddhists:
his flesh charring
his corpse collapsing
his heart refusing to burn…
Shin Yu Pai then bridges the span of years between this self-immolation and a more recent tragedy that occurred on the University of Washington campus. In 2008, a 61-year old janitor poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire because he had recently lost his job:
unnamed in the UW Daily,
I find his identity in The Stranger
learn he was assigned
to the Ethnic Studies building
to empty trash baskets
scrub toilets, mop floors
when no one is looking… (71)
The anonymity and invisibility of this working-class man—and the indifference of the student body who did not name him in their campus paper—is heartbreaking, and the building where he performed his job is particularly ironic. As an employee of the University of Washington who remembers the day this terrible event happened, I’m especially moved (and even a little shamed) by these lines. I’m impressed by the poignant, modern relevance that Shin Yu Pai brings to her work. It’s rare that I’ve read about such very current events in volumes of published poetry.
The poems of Adamantine range widely, pulling vocabulary and imagery from world history and religions, geography, natural history, art and science, all the while maintaining an intimate and personal feel. The poet tends to put a unique, individual face on abstract concepts such as communication, connection, spirituality, sacrifice, and beauty. Her lines are well-paced; they unfold in layers of syntax and pauses that force the reader to consider each one as if it were complete unto itself, each line a jewel in an individual setting.
Shin Yu Pai reads her poetry on Monday, March 21 at 7 p.m. at Elliott Bay Book Company at 1521 Tenth Ave., on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Call (206) 624-6600 or go to www.elliottbaybook.com for details.