October 2007

Olivia Cronk


Sightings: Selected Works (2000-2005) by Shin Yu Pai

Japanese love hotels are the subject of one of Shin Yu Pai’s series of poems in her new book Sightings: Selected Works (2000-2005). Love hotels are just what they sound like -- short-term hotels where couples go to have sex. In the poem “Dirty,” Pai examines the cleaning-up of a room. A spanking horse is sanitized, wet sheets stripped, items tidied. And “behind the scenes/ a pair of liver-spotted/ hands tak[es] a key.” In the poem immediately preceding this one, Pai lifts “testimonials” of time well-spent in love hotels. “Happiness is possible, even when your partner is someone else’s husband.” And thus runs Pai’s game: steal and reveal. This collection, culled from various series of pieces, represents an attack on and adoration of the texts of popular culture (both here and elsewhere). And I mean text, as does Pai, in all of its glorious connotations. The love hotels serve as conceptual shadow boxes for Pai’s cultural show-and-tell. She identifies a notion, a textual trend, and she exploits it for its linguistic charms and complicated ideological underpinnings.

This is noisy poetry. Slippery, too. Because much of the book relies on both visual effects (graphs, images of source material artworks, an eye exam poster) and the use of/illusion of “found” material, the reader has to carry a lot of intellectual weight around. Shin Yu Pai is also a visual artist, and there is an obvious aesthetic philosophy stringing her works together. (You can see her photographs and read more about her at www.shinyupai.com.) While the collision of texts in this book can feel a bit overwhelming, it is reflected quite appropriately in Pai’s photos -- the things of physical reality are unadorned and unfetishized. In this laying bare of the culture, though, Pai suggests a harsh criticism. In her hands, things like nutritional labels and football game plans take on sinister edges; they show us the stifling mess that is human organization. A “dodgeball graph” illustrates archetypal bully behavior. There are smiley faces and hearts, ever-disruptive font changes, an image of a computer login box, drawings, and the Lucky Strike logo. Image as writing prompt, of course, dominates much of the book’s structure.

The real strength of the book is in its unapologetic challenging of notions of continuity. And this is an ideological question as much as it is an aesthetic one. Pai offers readers a glimpse into the secret life of text in the culture -- the looming, ominous backdrop to our existences. When she challenges continuity, she challenges unquestioning consumption of the shit that the system feeds us. While her poems do not offer a magical, lyrical place in which a reader can dwell, they do offer an examination of words in the world. They offer an alternate version of things. Take, for example, an excerpt from what I see as the best moment of the book, a play for four voices -- taken from lines in a Chinese-English phrase book:

SAM WONG: On what day is it possible for you to depart?
WELLS FARGO: The steamer will depart tomorrow.
SAM WONG: When will you be ready?
WELLS FARGO: On board the vessel.
SAM’S ASSISTANT: The immigration from Europe to New England has been very large since the war was over.
SAM WONG: All aboard.
SAM’S ASSISTANT: Boston is the capital of Massachusetts.
WELLS FARGO: Good-bye; I must go home now.
SAM WONG: Very well, I thank you.

Sightings: Selected Works (2000-2005) by Shin Yu Pai
1913 Press
ISBN: 9780977935116
96 pages