The word "angry" doesn't come up a whole lot in discussions of poetry. Which is not to say that poetry can't be angry—like a lot of rock stars, Sylvia Plath is remembered more for the tragic end of her story than for the fire that fueled her career—but that people prefer to acknowledge poetry when it's funny, or brilliant. Local author Shin Yu Pai's new collection, Aux Arcs (La Alameda Press, $18), is both funny and brilliant, but the quality that kept coming back to me as I read the book and then read it again was its anger.
Aux Arcs is in part about Pai's experience living in the Bible Belt (specifically, Texas and Arkansas), and the book is prickly with observations. The second poem in the book, "Main Street," is about a time when a cluster of white teenagers spit at Pai on the sidewalk, their "sputum" landing "inches/from my leather dress shoes." As she relates the story of the disrespectful teenagers to her partner, Pai draws a line directly from those teenagers to her neighbors, who are "proud to wag/the Southern Cross/displays we bristle/against & those which/we resign ourselves to." Some other things in Aux Arcs that arouse Pai's ire: wastefulness, tainted infant formula that sickens hundreds of thousands of children, the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the white Southern inventor who came up with a fish-gutting machine called an "iron chink" explicitly to put Chinese immigrants out of work, the fact that female sushi chefs are still discriminated against (because, allegedly, "the core temperature/of a woman's palms aren't quite suited/to sushi production").
This is not anger disguised by metaphor, or leavened by ironic distance. Pai witnesses and hears about injustices, and she becomes outraged, the same way you or I would. She turns that outrage into art. Sometimes, her poems feel more like journalism, as when she visits a homeless encampment tucked underneath an interstate. They're all living in cars—Pai notes that "condensation fogging windshields is a tell-tale sign" that a car is being lived in. And she meets a woman who "stows her cat's ashes beneath a seat." These people living out of their cars are the underbelly of the city, the poor and forgotten, who put the lie to that unquestioned Southern pride that Pai rails against elsewhere in the book.
The book is obsessed with the things that most people don't see. Pai admires the beauty of "night monks" performing an evening prayer while "on the other side of campus:/Tristan Taormino, feminist/pornographer draws a record/crowd of students in a talk/on polyamory, swinging/& sex-positive culture." She alone appreciates the spiritual beauty of the monks, while everyone else is nearby being titillated and shocked and aroused. She sees crops left out to rot and blood spilled in a protest, and imagines the lives that could be saved by both. Pai imagines the lonely municipal back rooms of communist China:
Chairman Mao's visage
wheatpasted & restored
after every incident
of disfigurement, depleting
a storeroom depot
There's an irresistible connection between Pai's passion for the unseen and her raging against injustice, of course. Advocating for the unnoticed is one of the greatest callings a writer can answer. That she decided to focus her advocacy through poetry adds another level of injustice—people just don't read poetry the way they would, say, a blog—but Pai responds to that with her knack for bringing out the beauty in a poem. In the excerpt above, her lack of patience for the little words, using "w/" and "&" instead of spelling out prepositions and conjunctions, indicates her desire for the reader to cut directly to what matters. Pai's knack for finding exactly the right word, and then positioning each word just so around the page, guides her reader through each poem easily. Cut as they are from sheets of pure red rage, Pai stitches her words into something undeniably beautiful.