Shin Yu Pai's Sightings: Selected Works mixes popular culture with diagrams, typography, and the gender politics of gym class, setting the stage for an intellectually engaging and visually stunning book. Combining excerpts from four of the author's previous collections, the work in Sightings examines the social constructions of masculinity, intimacy, and the physical body, often using fragments of text and innovative poetic forms. While gracefully navigating the erotic undercurrents of athletics, consumerism, and mass transit, Pai's poems take the shape of eye exams, email boxes, and other templates that are not normally associated with poetry, creating fascinating juxtapositions and thought-provoking incongruities.
At times reminiscent of the language experiments of modernist poets, Pai's use of charts and diagrams to convey the barrenness of cultural landscapes is impressive. In her poem "Sonagram," for example, text that deals with the physical and metaphorical notions of the heart is placed in charts of nutrition facts, subtly critiquing attempts to quantify the transcendental. Describing the medical test and its implications, Pai writes in "Sonagram": " -- shows a picture / with heart, / organ / meat / served as / Packaged Nutritional/ facts -- The taste of rawness / weighed / against feathers" (70). While eloquently questioning these efforts to measure abstract ideas, Pai's poem, through its inventive format, attributes this desire to quantify the unquantifiable to the values of a consumer society. Like many of the works in this volume, "Sonagram" does a great job of negotiating not only the complexities of cultural trends but also the ways poetic forms can illuminate them.
The use of these non-literary forms to comment on social constructions of gender is also striking. In the selections from her collection Unnecessary Roughness, Shin Yu Pai explores cultural definitions of masculinity, often using diagrams, typography, and other devices to create evocative juxtapositions and incongruities. For instance, her poem "and round and round it goes --" takes the form of a high school track, offering an incisive analysis of the ways race, class, and gender as well as the pressure to conform shape young people's identities. Pai writes in Sightings, for example: "punishment for breaking / from the pack -- / attempted / lap and / pass / for / white, / middle class, / straight / holding slugging / beating --" (28). Through her inventive use of form, Pai implies that this pressure to conform on every level -- from ethnic and class background to sexual orientation -- might begin as a game, but quickly becomes a painful emotional cycle for those involved. These themes, present throughout her collection, are consistently paired with similar formal innovations, rounding out a visually stunning and altogether thought-provoking volume of poems.
Shin Yu Pai's Sightings is a daring, intelligent book. Although Pai is unafraid of experimentation, her collection is an enjoyable and engaging read. Highly recommended.