Review: Adamantine by Shin Yu Pai

Adamantine by Shin Yu Pai
(Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 2010)
Paper, 96 pp.: $14.00 ISBN 978-1-935210-18-4.


Adamantine is Shin Yu Pai’s eighth collection of poems. Early in this collection, in her poem “Blind Spot”, we find the speaker at a crosswalk. After the signal has changed to green, the speaker looks back “at the man poised at the street // crossing, long after / the light has gone green” only to then see “the round sticker affixed // to his chest / I am deaf and blind”.  The speaker, who cannot even ask his permission, takes the man’s arm and guides him across the street: “… I / place myself between // his body & the hostile line / of humming cars queuing; // when we reach the other side / he’s ready for me to let go. // there is just this practice”.

Here, the reader – this reader – is forced to pause. What is meant by the heavily emphasized “this practice”? What practice is this? Later in the collection, we encounter another poem, titled simply, “Practice”:

my own practice:
carving holes in
poetry books w/
exacto blade & straight
edge, intervention as
design concept

a hole too uneven
a hole too big
a hole too ragged
a hole too small

every event a mirror
of mind & heart,

In carving holes into books of poetry, Pai “practices” an excavation of emptiness, and in so doing, we join her in the exploration of what that might mean. In spite of the inherent violence in the act of cutting, it is with compassion and a keen observation of human nature that we are led through these poems, and it is because we trust her that we follow, regardless of where they might lead.

Every poem in Adamantine is rooted in compassion, compassion that springs from Buddhist thought but does not dwell on it, instead panning between east and west. Even the title itself. Adamantine, as defined by Merriam Webster: Unbreakable, from the root word adamant, meaning “refusing to be persuaded or to change one’s mind”, which comes from the Greek, adamas — “untameable.” Adamantine. The hardest non-synthetic substance known to man, commonly known as diamond. And, incidentally, a word intrinsically linked to the particular form of Buddhism that Pai practices, Vajrayana. Often translated as the adamantine, or diamond, vehicle, the word vajra, from which Vajrayana is derived, references “a legendary weapon and divine attribute that was made from an adamantine, or indestructible, substance and which could therefore pierce and penetrate any obstacle or obfuscation.” It is one of the core symbols of Vajrayana, and is a metaphor for wisdom, specifically a “wisdom realizing emptiness”.

These poems, while far from empty, are indeed wise, and it is this wisdom, this weapon, that Pai turns toward her subjects, finding beauty in all things. What defines Pai’s Adamantine is a fierce looking-out, both literally and figuratively. There is a clarity here that is rare among poets. Pai observes, and documents her observations with an unsentimental, and at times unsettling, eye that allows those observations to speak for themselves:

At 82, Luciano Mares remembers
the night his house burned to the ground
and wonders:

Does a mouse have Buddha nature?

I had some leaves
burning outside,
so I threw it in
the fire, mouse
trap – the heat
loosened the glue

the creature ran
back towards the house
where flames lit
the curtains &
spread up from there
destroying everything

Buddha nature. The potential for reaching enlightenment. Does a mouse have that potential? Pai, wisely, does not offer an answer.

Pai, a native of the Inland Empire, has lived in Texas, Massachusetts, Colorado, Illinois, Washington State, and Arkansas — and probably elsewhere as well. In a recent interview she states that she doesn’t consider herself a regional writer, but there is a definite sense of ‘place’ within much of her work, from exotic Asian locales to the unremarkable terrain of Riverside, California, where we learn that the local saying is “homicide, suicide, Riverside” (“The Diamond Path”). But where Adamantine is truly located is within the heart — a recurrent image throughout.

In these fifty poems that comprise Adamantine, what we find, contrary to what the title might imply, is not a study in permanence but an excavation of impermanence, of an existence that is simultaneously full and empty, meaningful and meaningless, intersecting where heart and stone meet; their steadfast refusal to burn.


Reviewed by Cati Porter

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