Photographs from Aux Arcs
The Ozarks: Images from Various Sources
A word about the cover of Aux Arcs
A Word from Shin Yu Pai
AUX ARCS is a collection of my poetry and photographic work combined into a single collection that primarily spans the period that I lived in the American South. I have lived and worked in urban centers that have included Southern California, Boston, Madrid, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, and Taipei. Each of these geographies has had its influence upon my creative sensibilities. But my foray into Southern living may have most deeply altered my relationship to a sense of place and a sense of home, or belonging, within a given geography. “Aux Arcs” is a collection of work about place and the desire to expand beyond geographic borders. The book’s title is drawn from the historical French term for things that are “of or from Arkansas” and also suggests an arc in the river. I see my time living in the South as a kind of arc, or detour from a larger path or trajectory. The book reflects on the strangeness and peculiarity of experience while also opening up to occasional wonder.
About Aux Arcs
Shin Yu Pai’s new collection of poems, Aux Arcs, is rooted in the Ozarks but makes arches and connections across the globe. In taut, luminous lines, she explores cross-cultural tensions and digs ever deeper to claim “the warmth of metaphoric stone hollowed out from the body’s beryl.” -- Arthur Sze
In poems both brilliant and spacious, Shin Yu Pai creates a language to inhabit the in-between places of the world and imagination. An apple might be the spoils of urban foraging or a childhood memory—a persimmon might be a domestic failure or an expression of enlightenment. As large as international politics, as small as the death of a cat, these poems work the metaphoric connection at the root of poetry. -- Miriam Sagan
A good tour guide is one who is curious about her surroundings, enjoying as much the learning about new things as she does sharing the information with others. Thus we find the perfect guide in Shin Yu Pai, who maps a centuries-long tour, in Aux Arcs, of China, Chile, South Africa and other locations through a residency in the United States’ Deep South. From Arkansas and Texas, the poet shines a global light on the geographic monoliths of the natural world and the manmade marvels of architecture and visual art, just as she illuminates humanity’s interior motivations and misconceptions of the “other.” As temporary voyeurs, readers follow Pai’s keen eye and ear through a structure wide in arc but sharp in focus. Aux Arcs is a book you’ll want to visit, like the best museums, again and again, letting the ideas and images of prior reads inform and enhance your future tours. -- Chip Livingston
Strangeness and Overtures
An Appreciation of Shin Yu Pai's Aux Arcs
by Jay McDaniel
Sometimes it is hard to know where you are. Maybe you know where your body is. You can feel the pressure of the ground upon your feet; you can feel the comforting touch of a friend's hands upon your shoulder. But the surroundings seem strange to you, and sometimes very alienating. You are in a strange place culturally, physically, and psychologically.
Is the strangeness outside you or inside you? Is it a feature of the world around you or a mood you carry within your heart? Of course many people think that strangeness is only in the mood. They think that strangeness lies in the eye of the human beholder.
I doubt it. I think that the violence we humans inflict on one another is inordinately strange, because so unnecessary and self-defeating.
But the matter gets complicated if you are just a little bit strange to yourself. Even your old familiar self -- the one you see in the mirror -- can be strange when seen after having taken a detour in life. And it is especially strange as you take the detour. This kind of strangeness can be very uncomfortable but also very productive. And, strangely enough, it is kind of natural.
Buddhists tell us that we are just a little different at every moment. The point is not simply that we never step in the same river twice; it is that we who are doing the stepping are different each time, too. Consider the digital story by June Xie called "Aquaphobia" found in this website: Fearing Water: A Spiritual Exploration. She finds water strange and then realizes that she is strange like water. I am strange like this, too. How about you? Have you ever been the same?
Or consider the new volume of poems and photographs by Shin Yu Pai: Aux Arcs. Aux Arcs means of or about Arkansas, where I live. The poems stem from her experience in the American South. She writes:
I see my time living in the South as a kind of arc, or detour from a larger path or
trajectory. The book reflects on the strangeness and peculiarity of experience while also opening up to occasional wonder.
Her words are important to me because she and I came to know each other during her time in Arkansas. I did not want this time to be a detour because she added so much to my life and that of many others. For me she was -- and still is -- a mentor in poetry and a friend in spirit. I don't have many friends here that really like to talk about Ezra Pound.
But I came to accept that her stay with us was a detour. And I knew that some of it comes from alienation. I, too, often feel quite alienated from many aspects of southern culture. I am not really at home with guns, good old boys, evangelical Christianity, or fried chicken. Sometimes I think I should have been born in Brooklyn.
Or at least in Claremont, California, where they have Skyspaces like the one in the photo. I need sky.
But I am reminded by her poems and photographs that strangeness can be a spiritual blessing, too. A catalyst for creativity, perception, honesty, and metaphor-making. I grow weary of people who know themselves too well, who feel rooted in secure identities, because they so easily draw sharp lines between "us" and "them."
I worry about a world filled with too many people who spit in mean ways, like the boys in her poem "Main Street."
fresh from mailing notes
to a college search committee,
I turn over the last question asked
snap back to earth
when sputum lands inches
from my leather dress shoes
three teenage white boys
park outside the post office,
one in the passenger seat
watched as I walked out,
synchronized throat clearing
just then — spitting
Must boys be boys? Can't they ever be gentle men? Surely even teenage boys, even in Arkansas, possess the Buddha-nature.
Still I know that, for Shin Yu Pai, there was more than the South with its mean side. More than spitting. I think she kind of liked just a bit of the funkiness of the South. There's an honesty in it. Memphis is the home of the blues. Elvis understands. I do, too. I've been to Sun Records.
And certainly there are poems of landscape and mindscape which fall into wonder at the sheer funkiness of being human and wonder at the subterranean depths beneath all that is human, as seen in enchanted rocks near Llano, Texas.
Hear these lines from "Enchanted Rock."
scattered across pink batholith monadnock,
weather pits sprout Texas bluestem, live oak
miniature soil islands independent
ecologies all of their own – 425 feet above ground
opening out over the Llano Uplift,
we scale the giant boulder on New Year’s Day
Can you imagine weather pits sprouting live oaks? And do you know what a "batholith" is before looking it up? Now imagine it pink. We'll work on "monadnock" later.
In so many of Shin Yu Pai's poems and photographs, there is a sense of starkness and depth, irony and beauty. There are also fragments, too. Ezra Pound would be proud. And above all there is a knack for language, visual and verbal. She has a knack for claiming "the warmth of metaphoric stone out of the body's beryl."
I am struck by the last poem. It is called "Maps for a Narrative Atlas" and is very simple. Just a list:
Boulder: Flatirons and golf clubs
Cambridge: Necco dots and neckties
Boston: Pabst and poets
Boulder: Llamas and stupas
Conway: Taprooms and roundabouts
Seattle: Sailors and salted caramels
Dallas: Shell stations and sushi
Austin: Buddhas and BBQ
Riverside: Citrus and Mandarins
I was part of the narrative in Conway.
Were we a detour? I'm not so sure. What can seem like a detour at one point in your life can seem like an overture in another. After all, the larger arcs of our lives are not knowable in advance, not even by the goddess of mercy. How, then, might we live? For me the poetry of Shin Yu Pai is an invitation to live in obedience to the calling of the moment, grateful for the clarities and also for the confusions. And what is the call of the moment? Surely it differs moment to moment. Sometimes it is to make the best of the strange and sometimes to home our way into the familiar. Always it is to love.
There is a poem in the middle of Aux Arcs called "Some People Have a Hard Time Getting Numb." The poem is about a woman going to the dentist but also about all of us. Shin Yu Pai's poems and photographs are not anaesthetizing. I am pretty sure she has a hard time getting numb. Why do poets write?
But what peace is worth the cost of anaesthesia? Isn't it better to live with the fragments, even if sometimes they are shards of glass? Sometimes people circle back and find detours to be overtures. The circling then becomes a dancing, and the dancing brings stones alive.
There are many living stones in this volume: some deeply personal and some deeply geological. As you read closely, letting them rest in your imagination, you will find that some of the stones turn pink.
Indeed the cover of the book, created by a Seattle artist, Whiting Tennis, bespeaks the magic of construction. Landscapes emerge out of the creativity of the universe and the creativity of our hearts. We are like groundhogs taking stock of our shadows, made possible by the sunlight. In remembering where we have been, and opening ourselves to the sky, we get a sense of where we are going.