Book Review

Ensō is the understated, lucid log of a twenty-year journey that transported Shin Yu Pai from Chicago to Texas and, at present, Seattle. The passive voice seems appropriate here since Ensō records Pai’s struggles between agency, asserting her own voice, and inertia, ceding control to other forces—personal, familial and aesthetic—that have steered her life. Memoir, lyric, poetry and photographs of artwork and natural phenomena comprise this book of serene, Buddhist-esque observations and reflections. The book’s title, the Buddhist circle, is shaped by the first and last poems which echo one another, asserting selfhood and agency: “Devotion” ends with “this token / I held back for myself” while the title poem concludes “in the contours of hand-drawn waves / you start to pull your own story.” The bulk of the book marks Pai’s gradual letting go, her willingness to release her “attachment to the control afforded by the written page” so the poems can “inhabit” a world shaped by “chance.” Pai’s aesthetic journey toward selflessness reaches its peak with her earthworks and public works projects, but because the poem “Ensō” actually ends the book, one has this sense throughout that the author is, and will always be, moving back and forth between lyric assertiveness and Negative Capability (as per John Keats). This dynamic dialectic is not merely cognitive; living in three different geographical and cultural environments, the trauma of a miscarriage and the physical / emotional experience of motherhood all take their tolls on Pai’s body and mind.

Divided into ten sections, the book tracks Pai’s immersions into diverse and rich aesthetic experiences (visual, aural, and linguistic) framed by the geographical spaces in which they occur. In Chicago at the Art Institute, Pai discovers a hidden gem far from the madding crowds, “Ando’s gallery,” which “belonged to me alone.” There, in the still quiet of her reclusiveness, “People became the art, as their personhood was magnified by the contrast with minimalism and silence of the space.” The projection of the aesthetic onto living beings becomes a central motif throughout Pai’s work in this period, but her attempts to introject the aesthetic has, as it were, interesting parallels: “this kid sealed off / by earbuds / no different than I, the poet / nose stuck deep inside / a notebook, attuned to / the private experience of / encountering the music within.”

The aesthetic is a free-floating signifier and signified, active and passive, like Pai’s sense of selfhood in relation to her verbal and visual art projects. The aesthetic’s freedom from any specific material or genre is an index of Pai’s attempts to express the inexpressible, a familiar enough theme, certainly, but one rarely articulated so clearly: “I regard poems as embodying a certain quality of grace. Vessels that reach beyond words to approach the ineffability of an offering, alchemized through the heart.” Nonetheless, poetry, however necessary for Pai’s sense of herself as an artist, is finally insufficient. She turns to visual art because, “[she] wanted to return to the origin, a time before poetry emerged in [her], to recover a deeper calling to beauty.” This “deeper calling” is channeled through her mother, a visual artist who never bothered to master the English language since “Everything she wanted to express was in her paintings anyway….” Pai found herself drawn to her mother’s alluring painterly expressiveness: “She created a language that I wanted to know and enter into.” Pai’s turn to an aesthetic practice modeled by her mother heralds the second half of the book where image, text, photography, and nature coalesce in reinforcing patterns. In these new aesthetic objects and their underlying values, the word is an extension of, not a power over, color, shape and sound. By way of her mother, Pai begins her own prelinguistic practice in the section aptly titled “Without Words,” where her photographs of leaves attempt to capture an ineffability that will not only outlast leaves and words but will also outlast the photographs themselves. In other words, the ineffable offers Pai a meditative tranquility that, like gender-resistant foliage itself, suspends the binaries of the human world. Indeed, the photographs of the leaves offers a respite from male hegemony that dominated her cherished Ando gallery. She writes:

As I scanned the portraits for names and faces that I might recognize, I realized how little had changed throughout the ages and cultures. Male poets outnumbered the women. One woman, completely concealed by her hair, might well have been anonymous. The didactic label was unsatisfactory, and had in fact always been lacking. The poems that I’d written back then and now were my way of disrupting the silence of these informational time capsules put forth by art curators. The poems were my effort to open up a space and time beyond what the label prescribed, to create something distinct from what was visibly enshrined, translating the other into a language of self. Finding beauty in absence, coming home to both longing and belonging.

Eighteen years later, Pai has her revenge: “in the final intervention / I displace the patriarchal form / enshrouded in mondokoro / to even up the numbers. . . .”

I noted above that a miscarriage and motherhood temper the apparent aplomb of many of these poems and the prose. Regarding the tragedy of losing a child, insult is added to injury when Pai must delay her grieving process in order to travel with her father back to Taiwan, his homeland. In serving as a dual proxy for a nonexistent brother and deceased mother, Pai was able “to claim the duties of the firstborn son” and to be a “mother to the wounded parts that he had turned away from.” Returning home “depleted,” she is “saddened by the trauma of her father’s history and [her] own experience of denying [herself] the solitude needed to process [her] loss.” Bowing to familial duty, Pai disperses her personal grief over temporal zones and geographical spaces, diluting her mourning. On the other hand, eventual motherhood brings a new “attentiveness to time.” The poem “Dividing the Milk” is a celebration of the rituals around preparing milk for her son and offering milk to the sea and the tragedies it holds, including her unborn child: “a paper stand-in / for the unborn // baby—without a body. . . .” Pai’s penchant for haiku (her “go-to form”) and “observational poetics” provide a creative outlet while nursing. Those poems she wrote in those first few weeks of motherhood are “everyday jewels that heightened [her]daily work in the early days of motherhood when [she] did not have the energy or mind to shape longer poems. . . .” Pai cedes her body to the demands of motherhood even as she carves out pockets of time and space for herself and her own practices as an artist. Eventually, however, when her son is able to walk, she manages to combine childcare with aesthetic creativity, perhaps most obviously in “Heirloom.” Literally writing an alphabet poem on heirloom apples (one letter per apple), Pai celebrates, in the accompanying poems, all varieties of apples even as her son, an unwitting “student” of his mother’s practice, observes. In ceding the desire for permanence to the natural changes of nature, to scavengers, these poems, like the apples, like her photographs (here, of her son), are remains of remains, the remains of disappearances. Pai’s practice recalls the enactment of disintegration in the Jordan Scott / Stephen Collis collaboration Decomp (2013) as well as the persistence of life narrated throughout Joel Felix’s Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die (2013).

In this sense, the sections “Same Cloth” and “Animating the Text” offer two takes on the material world. The first recounts Pai’s encounter with the complex signifiers of racism in Texas; a neighbor displays a Confederate flag and bandana along with a welcome sign and Chinese lanterns. Pai’s attempt to counter these microaggressions by following civic procedures (informing a sheriff who turns out to have more sympathy for the neighbor than for Pai) fails, and the poem she writes later in Washington state, like the poem she writes eighteen years after her first visit to the Anso Gallery, marks another occasion of delayed response of delayed response. The public works of “Animating the Text” offer Pai a refuge from the personal, from her (dis)marked body. Still, as her collaborations on many of her public arts projects suggest, the perils of the material world can also be circumvented by immersion in the tradition of aesthetic allusion and inspiration. Thus, some of Pai’s most experimental works echo those of other artists. For example, Pai notes that her interest in distressed book designing was inspired by Brenda Iijima’s book- and paper-making experiments while her poem “Console” will remind some of Barrett Watten’s early experiments with the crossword format as well as Amy Catanzano’s recent computation poems. And the cross-stitched “Driftwood” pays homage to poems as different from one another as Susan Howe, Hank Lazer, and giovanni singleton. Even her whimsical “Metaphysique D’Ephemera,” which is “after Joseph Cornell,” is reminiscent of the publisher and poet Geoffrey Gazza’s Thanksgiving “menu” poem. These intersections with so many poetics and, more generally, aesthetic practices remind us that every art object, verbal or visual, is merely a nexus in a network. Ensō is a tapestry of sensuous appeal, a handmade quilt of poetry, prose and visual images summarizing almost twenty years of Pai’s life. I can’t wait to see what future works she has in store for us.


About the Reviewer

Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of several chapbooks and six books of poetry: c.c. (Krupskaya 2002), On Spec (Omnidawn 2008), The Hero Project of the Century (The Backwaters Press 2009), Adventures of Pi (Dos Madress Press 2011), Howell (Atelos Books 2011) and As Iz (Omnidawn 2018). A limited-edition art project, Trump l’oeil, was published by Hostile Books in 2017. He and Jeanne Heuving edited the anthology, Inciting Poetics (University of New Mexico Press, 2019). His website is at