Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Commentary on/Review of Shin Yu Pai's Unnecessary Roughness

Shin Yu Pai's most recent work, Unnecessary Roughness (2005), is a visual and linguistic maze that explores the insular world of high school athletics with a violent curiosity. It is also a chapbook in the classic sense -- it is a unified work in which all the poems direct their gaze towards sports, our idealization of sports from the beginnings of youth, and our societal obsession with sports with an unyielding focus. You will either like it or you won't.

To be truly appreciated, I think that Unnecessary Roughness should be read as a whole, preferably on one sitting (it's less than 35 pages, and the poems flow easily). This is why I am breaking from the recent pattern of posts again, apparently breaking from my own self-doubts about book reviews of poems as described in the previous post, and writing what is basically a book review here, as opposed to a review of any individual poem in the book. This review/commentary, of course, will necessarily be incomplete, but I'm hoping that it will be consonant with my belief that the best reading of the book is to read all the poems together as a unified entity.

In terms of style, about a third of the poems in the book are "visual poems," while most of the rest are of a more slender, traditional format. In general, I would argue that the visual poems work better than the other poems not just because of their stylistic ambition but because the ambition manifests itself in charming, innovative, beautiful works. In particular, take note of "dodgeball," "and round and round it goes," and "the wet area." Pai is clearly skilled at conjuring up unique patterns and anti-patterns and sensitive to visual space.

In terms of content, Pai intermingles themes of masculinity/ femininity, adolescence, sexuality, patriotism, high school athletics, and violence in sports with relative ease. The poems are not bluntly judgmental, but at the same time, they remain highly critical of a society mesmerized by the violence of athletics, which Pai suggests has subconscious sexual elements as well. At its core, the poems are also critical of the often physical, sometimes brutal nature of team sports, which function as a kind of proxy for the idea of a "fascist-socialist dictatorship" that conceals and distorts the individuality of human beings.

Reader be warned that the poems are not easy listening. The language and content of the poems are explicit though definitely not exploitative. In fact, Pai presents these issues/themes but allows us, the readers, to arrive at our own conclusions about whether, say, as in "P.E.," her criticism of team sports and school spirit is valid or not. In essence, as usual when we read poems, we carry our own heavy baggage into the poems and read them in light of the baggage that has formulated our personalities and perspectives on life.

As for myself, I have mixed feelings about the implicit contentions of the poems. You can say that the poems caricature high school athletics almost but not quite to the point of stereotype. Or you can say that the poems represent an intersting exploration of the subconscious underpinnings of high school athletics and sports in general. Or you can say both, and I say both. Actually, I like pretty much every sport and enjoyed my high school years, but at the same time, I recognize that most sports are violent and my high school years were no picnic either. In its most effective passages, Unnecessary Roughness captures the ambivalence of it all.

8 Comments:

Blogger pam said...

The short lines are nicely cropped and brutal.

The "sense of team or/tribe" makes me think of that other grand piece of baggage that highschool sports lugs around: the war metaphor. Maybe I'm also thinking of this on account of the year 2005 publication date of this book.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

This time around, I'll just add in a link to the site where they've archived my interview with Shin Yu Pai that originally appeared in Asian American Press.

http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/interviews/aap/pai_shin_yu.html

9:16 PM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Pam, yes, I think that many of the poems also work as a metaphor for war. Which makes sense, considering the fact that a lot of war metaphors are used in sports.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Bryan, Thanks a lot for the link to your interview with Shin Yu Pai. I was pleased that my reading of the poems, for the most part, matched what the poet wanted to accomplish, even though I don't think this matching is necessary to a reading of the poems.

Still, it can often be really interesting to learn what the poet thinks of his or her poems.

11:48 PM  
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