(a turning of the wheel): A Review of Ensō by Shin Yu Pai

Ensō by Shin Yu Pai. Entre Ríos Books, 2020. 160 pgs. $25.

When Ensō came in the mail, I was surprised with how big a book it was— at 8×11”, it’s nearly the same size as my laptop. On reading Ensō, though, the book’s physical size was dwarfed by the scope and depth of what was inside.

Ensō is a book for the artist and the writer: part poetry collection, part memoir, and part guidebook. Pai naturally weaves the threads of this hybrid work together: beautiful imagery describes the projects that she has undertaken, then photography, the subjects of ekphrasis, and book covers showcase the artistry and visual detail of Pai’s various projects.

Split into ten chapters, Ensō ranges from experiences of racism to bookbinding to motherhood to tea ceremonies to wrestling with forms and mediums of poetry. One of the most visually striking of these chapters is “Without Words,” which recounts some of Pai’s time in the city of Redmond, where she served as the city’s fourth poet laureate from 2015-2017. Drawing from her expansive knowledge of photography and poetics, Pai curated a selection of images from the Redmond Historical Society’s archives, and burned them onto native leaves by developing the leaves and photos together in the summer sun. Though there are no words, the images of city ancestors (many of them part of the logging industry) seared into hosta, gingko, and blackberry leaves, are poems. The interplay between the historical importance of these figures and how their livelihoods impacted and continue to impact the environment, with the constriction of the shapes and veins of leaves, is stunning. These poems hit the senses, conjuring the texture of each leaf, the smell of the outdoors, and the wonder of black and white photography organically superimposed onto nature. Most captivating is the degradation of these poems—images fade with time and leaves wither. Pai writes, “I allow them to decompose as a reminder that nothing is fixed, all is impermanent. Even as a historic image is brought to life again, it recedes.” The awareness of the transience of these visual poems, though captured on camera, speak to Pai’s attention to her craft as well as her humility as a creator, allowing natural forces to have control of her work.

Another chapter is devoted to Pai’s practice of haiku. While normally driven by environment rather than form, Pai admits that the structure of writing in a form can prove fruitful. The Beat poets and her writing community spurred Pai towards studying Asian poetic and literary forms, particularly haiku. She notes, “It was through these uniquely American voices that I found there could be something to recover in the cultural origins that I turned away from.” This practice of haiku—which also brought a turn in Pai’s interests towards East Asian literature—was one that Pai embraced both for herself, and for the communal aspects it offered. Over the course of 2015, Pai and a dedicated group of poets shared new haiku every week. This brought about the collaborative collection Haiku Not Bombs, and several years later, the Rensselaerville Festival of Writers Haiku Project. Previously uncollected haiku spanning a fourteen-year period rounds off the chapter. The tone of these poems is frank, often wry, with the effective imagery that good haiku calls for, whether it deals with the natural world, such as:

wandering through fields

of brightly colored gourds spotted

with decay, I think of Yayoi

 or if the poem deals with the mundane and relatable, as in this haiku:

after escorting the giant

spider back outside, bolting

the kitchen door

This collection of sixty-four poems adds an element of surprise and delight to Ensō—it appears as a chapbook, tucked into an envelope inside the book. This book-within-a-book is yet another of the ways that Pai propels her work outside of the usual confines of books, into the realm of interactive artwork.

In addition to the marvelous book, Ensō is accompanied by audio and video. Most of the essays, poems and multimedia pieces in Ensō are recorded by the author and are available to view and listen to online. Several songs are also recorded and available for listeners. Stones, a collaboration with Tomo Nakayama, is only one minute and sixteen seconds, and a handful of lines. The singer, presumably Shin Yu Pai herself, describes several piles of stones: an unmarked pile of stones, and piles of joy and sorrow. The singer ends the song by advising their audience to “…take a stone from a mound of sorrow / and move it to a mound of joy.” Hidden in these simple lines is that idea that people have control over the emotions of sorrow and joy. Rather than victims of fate or their surroundings, people make choices every day – they choose whether the stones from their unmarked pile will be placed in sorrow or placed in joy. This succinct and touching song, certainly borne out of the talent Pai has honed through years of haiku-writing, is a gentle reminder to take control of one’s circumstances, and to choose joy.

It would not be right to close this review without discussing the titular poem, “Ensō.” As other poems of Pai’s, “Ensō” was written from a place of grief. Inspired in part of a gyotaku, a Japanese method of making prints with the body of a fish, the poem is also an homage to a beloved teacher of Pai’s who passed away. It’s also worth noting the title; the word ensō is Japanese for “circle,” and corresponds with Zen Buddhism and the circle of life and death that each person faces. Beginning with a tattoo, “Ensō” invokes the images of lotus and cherry blossom, as well as the ink that will later reappear beside the poem’s emotional center, a dying squid that Pai encountered during a squid fishing expedition. After winding through childhood, marked by a Japanese hannya mask and daruma doll, as well as the supernatural beliefs of the speaker’s grandfather, the poem zooms in to a brief encounter with a solar eclipse, then an extended interaction with a squid. The speaker, after witnessing the squid pass away in the palm of a marine biologist, declares, shell-shocked, “an animal died / in the making of this poem.” This death, which might seem insignificant, helps drive the poem. The largeness of the creature’s eyes, its ink splayed over the biologist’s hand, the mesmerizing patterns on the squid’s skin, and the highly developed nervous system all humanize the animal, building the impact of its death. The speaker reels. From there, the poem moves on again, racing through multiple images and perspectives: the speaker in a hospital ward, New Year’s lanterns, a clenched fist inked onto a screen, salmon rushing upstream to their deaths. The rapidly changing pacing, perspective and scenery gives the poem momentum, but it stays cohesive because Pai returns to similar images over and over. The image of salmon swimming in the river is especially pointed, as they swim upstream to spawn, sometimes succeeding, and sometimes dying before they complete their goal. The speaker and her companion watch “the plunk of water splashing / as another fights its way forward / a child seems this ceaseless cycle / as an augury of death” but the speaker rejects this interpretation: “No, she says, / they are completing their lives.” The circular lives of the salmon appear just before the close of the poem. This approach to the salmons’ lives is a small moment in the larger scheme of the poem that amplifies the larger ensō that Pai has created. The poem closes as it opened, with lotus and cherry blossom blooming out of white space. Beginning and ending the poem in the same images, she completes the poem (and the book’s) circle, evoking an ink-drawn ensō, a black circle on pristine white paper. To further her point, Pai bookends the poem with artworks by David Francis, one an inky, water piece splotched with patches that recall spotted squid skin, the other dark ink spots on paper, waiting to be connected into a larger picture.

Ensō is clearly a book of great power. First, there is the depth of Pai’s artistic work, which stand alone as poignant, retrospective, and thoughtful pieces of poetry, mixed media, and song. Next, there is the element of memoir and process as an artist, adding more layers to each of the poetic projects that readers engage with in Ensō. Understanding the attention, detail, and partnership that went into each of Pai’s works brings a deeper appreciation for the work that was done. Finally, the book itself stands as a model for other artist-writers hoping to convey some of the nuance of in-person display through print. Ensō surprises readers at each page turn, and at the end, leaves them with a deep awe concerning the beauty, sorrow, and strangeness present everywhere. More than that, it calls readers further into the practices of exploration, wonder, and wandering one’s way through the immensities of the world.

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