(Shin Yu Pai reads at the Richard Hugo House tonight at 7 pm. The reading is free.)
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...