A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University
Adamantine by Shin Yu Pai | White Pine Press 2010 | $16
Adamantine, as the title reflects, is a collection filled with luster, gleaming with deep insight, and further characterized by an ethereal landscape, focused on emotional connections, on spirituality, on death, and on the afterlife. Pai’s work travels both within and outside of ethnic and racial frames, thus complicating any transparent categorization of the collection as “Asian American” literature.
Nevertheless, the political character of many of her poems does make Adamantine speak to many of the field’s traditional concerns. I begin this review further into the collection, with what I believe is the larger project of the work. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Vulture,” Pai’s lyric speaker considers the responsibilities of one who chronicles the lives of others:
of the witness
the I of the commentator
grubby children at the rim
of a Guatemala dump
stunned orphans in Russia (76)
The homonyms of “eye” and “I” function in different contexts, both on the level of ‘one who watches’ and ‘one who speaks.’ The following lines accordingly consider the issue of witnessing, with respect to the plight of global poverty. What is the responsibility of the lyric speaker, Adamantine continually asks, with respect to voice and sight? In that vein, I’d like to concentrate on one of the overall lyric approaches that Pai takes, which is to place current events and historical figures in comparative perspective. As part of Pai’s relational approach, the collection opens fittingly with an epigraph from Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost. The passage from which Pai excerpts refers to prayers and mantras and explores how such spiritual inscriptions speak to individual loss and to aesthetic beauty. At the same time, by invoking Anil’s Ghost, Pai sets Adamantine firmly within a tradition that queries human rights and global conflict. Perhaps we are not surprised, then, when we find that the first poem’s title is “This is not My Story,” as if to immediately query the autobiographical impulse of the confessional lyric. The lyric stories of “Adamantine” are often those of Asian or Asian American figures who move beyond the speaker, including Thich Quang Duc in “Burning Monk,” where the lyric speaker repeats, as a kind of mantra, “his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn” (19). Of course, Thich Quang Duc is most famously known for his self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War. The use of the word “heart” arcs out across this collection. We are reminded in the very first poem, “This is not my Story,” that the “human heart is / a wholly different animal, / we must sense when to give in / before the other gives up” (11). The importance of emotion and affect imbues the lyric speaker with a kind of power, leading her toward a pathway that involves spiritual reawakening. Another figure invoked is James Kim, the Korean American who died tragically when he and his family were caught in a winter snowstorm in Oregon. The lyric speaker gestures again to loss, but contextualizes his death within the frame of sacrifice, as James had attempted to situate help for his family despite the possibility that he could have succumbed to the austere weather conditions.
One of the most deliberate and fascinating sequences within Adamantine is the successive poems “Model Minorities,” “Requiescat,” and “Body Worlds.” Pai’s lyric speaker first invokes the lack of recognition that mental illness receives within Asian American communities, especially as it was exposed during the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. “Model Minorities” is, not surprisingly, the poem that most clearly evokes Asian Americanist themes, focusing on the damaging expectation that Asian Americans maintain a perfect, salubrious, and mentally agile image. In “Requiescat,” the lyric speaker purposefully juxtaposes two events in terms of their impact on a university campus: the court hearings of Amanda Knox and the death of In Soo Chun. While the lyric speaker points out that Amanda Knox’s hearing receives much more attention from media outlets, In Soo Chun’s death requires remains unmourned:
I find his name
the death of a 61-year-old
won’t make headline news
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
I lie down to sleep (71).
Here, the lyric speaker is clearly perturbed by the focus on Amanda Knox as opposed to this custodial worker, who is apparently so unimportant as to not merit a mention in the university paper. What I appreciate here, too, is the irony of his death within the Ethnic Studies building, which gives us the sense that even within such a location, his life does not necessarily bear increased importance, as he works at a time when “no one is looking.” The sense of uneasiness faced by the lyric speaker is most clearly related by the break in the tercets that occurs with the line, “I lie down to sleep.” The line is haunting in the way it references death as well as in the kind of disappointment that the lyric speaker experiences at having had to witness another overlooked life. The next poem, “Body Worlds,” clarifies yet another level of erasure through its poetic consideration of the notorious museum exhibit, which was critiqued for the way in which the cadavers were acquired:
knee joints replaced
with steel, corpses
stolen from mental hospitals
the undocumented bodies
of the executed, bullet holes
found in a specimen’s head-
quartered in Dalian & Krygystan
the humanity of bodies stripped
of skin, fatty tissue, age & eye color (75)
The lyric speaker constructs the human being as one who possesses a specific and individual existence, rather than as a generic representation that can only be understood through a skeletal or muscular structure. Humanity is thus “stripped,” as a fully configured and contextualized life cannot be denoted from what remains in those exhibits. Adamantine opposes this stripping effect continually and effervescently.
Pai ends with yet another stunning poem of biographical scope entitled “Double Happiness,” which twines together the marriage of Bao Xishun, who is considered to be one of the tallest individuals in the world, with Kim Bong-Seok’s “reunion with his father.” Kim Bong-Seok, otherwise known as Toby Dawson, won a bronze medal in moguls at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. That Pai’s collection ends on this felicitous note returns the reader to the many significations of the word “heart,” so that we leave the lyric terrain within the bounds of familial and romantic love.
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Stephen Hong Sohn is an Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University.