Friday, December 18, 2020

Light on Extended Arms: Reversibility in Maw Shein Win’s Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn, 2020)

                                              (cover art by Adrian de la Pena)

Some say a healthy body makes a healthy mind; others say great physical pain and illness is the result of a spiritual (or, more secularly, emotional or cultural) crisis. I love how Maw Shein Win’s second collection of poetry, Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn, 2020), is able to language the relationship between body & spirit, and the mysteries of symbiosis by means of daily rituals beyond any reductive narrative of cause & effect, or as Penny Edwards puts it, “invites us to reconsider and reconstitute the holding patterns that organize our lives, and reminds us of the power of the spirit—animal, human or nat—to resist containment.”


Although each of these poems (rarely exceeding one page) stands on its own, they are loosely framed by a plot in which the speaker, and the reader’s, task is to honor, appease, liberate, the neglected nats, trapped in a (self) storage space, exiled from their rightful spirit houses, and thus (co-)responsible for the “Illness, injury, and disaster” (in Qiao Dai’s words), in past & present, felt in many of these poems. The crises in this book are as physical & social as they are spiritual, or as Eve Wood writes, “Illness…pervades this collection, the sense that the body is at odds with the spirit,” yet since the illnesses are as much a result of being trapped in rigid containers (prisons, storage units, physical disability, wounded kinship and social stigma), as in the ungrounded ‘freedom’  of “extreme isolation (like) a radio between stations” (in Portal), that can become destructive as the water in the “Water Space” poems unless domesticated (“now we pour water,” 33), the forms of healing, release, liberation are various.


In the third “Storage Unit 202” poem (23), whose “pod” becomes an almost womb-like presence (see Amanda Moore’s superb reading of this poem), the temporal, and ethical significance the speaker attributes to objects (“a quilt made of yesterday’s tablecloth, today’s plaid coat/ & tomorrow’s prayer shawls”) suggests that the speaker, who had been previously more materialist, secularized, assimilated into American culture, realizing she must become more spiritual---without having to get all philosophically metaphysical. This doesn’t mean these rituals involve atonement as a renunciation of sensual pleasures, as Win leaves ample room for linguistic play. “I drink moonshine at dawn” may suggest, to a secularist, bootleg liquor—but what if it’s actual moonshine? After all liquor is called ‘spirits’ and Dickinson tasted a liquor never brewed! 


A similar use of the sublime pun occurs in the first two lines of “Water Space (one)”


tree mouth

of river          (24)


suggests that, to a nat, a tree has a mouth, and can also be a mouth of a river, and that such an incantation perhaps has the power to liberate “mother trapped/ in a tree” (in ways that remind me a little of Louise Gluck’s “All Hallows”). The lack of personal pronouns in these pieces may show perceptions the mother & daughter share (generational trauma, for instance) despite the differences and distances. In these elemental poems that make up the book’s first section, water is a much more destructive force, but sky (air & space) is more beneficent, and introduce us to the saving powers of “reversibility” (27) on both an image and psychological level (for instance, what’s called shyness, social anxiety and awkwardness that may get mistaken for “idle” (17) by toxically extroverted cousins may not be “attachment avoidance as much as “avoidant attachment”).


And though there are no poems titled after fire and earth, the fiery colors asters & star(gazer) lillies, snapdragons, and the fuchsia (with its Mardi Gras-esque combination of purplish, yellow and green)—culminating in the subtle sexuality of “Vase (three),” bring an earthy warmness to a section that had started with crisis and disaster, as if may free the “king drinking pear juice trapped in a glass jar” (22), the mother-spirit, spirit mother, and the “wildflower superbloom” from trampling tourists (23)


(drawings by Mark Dutcher)


Section 2 is framed by a prison tale, and the barest outlines of a human subject speaker, but it’s unframed by many lines, or short stanzas, that might be happier without a context, such as:


“resting places


dandelion seeds


inside a head hewn out of granite”.  (41)


On a plot level, however, if section one dwelt primarily on addressing the disaster and injury the nats influenced, many poems in section 2 and 3 focus more on the illness, disability. I love the way Win is able to put the feeling of being a prisoner to physical pain into words:“blindfold wound around a bleeding head

sepia timecards & combination locks”  (72)


“the brakes of the car an unsettling sound

detachment of hips dislocation of sorrow

align the axle your fluids are down” (59)


This could suggest a car accident caused the physical injury, but also that many of us in America are brought up to think of, and to feel, our bodies as a car (in which, in the words of Delmore Schwartz, “the ego is always at the wheel”). Just the other day, I felt-and heard-- the creaking in my neck diagnosed as degenerative spine disease like someone obsessively trying to find the right combination to lock (I told a body worker—and she said, “don’t think of it as pain, think of it as energy dancing.”)


In the process of self-diagnosis that occurs in many of these poems, I also detect a critique of one’s investment in other literary, and dramatic genres as potential causes of illness. The poem “Cinema,” begins with the enigmatic couplet:


the auteur pops pain pills

hybrid, saga, biopic                (43)


“Theatre in Three Acts” asks”


“What happens to the body after soliloquy

mine in mottled fur coat” (46).


On an aesthetic/genre level, these narrative forms of cinema (or novels or memoirs for that matter) are a kind of pain pill and, as many (non-western) healers know, pain pills don’t get to the root, or sometimes have side effects that are worse than the pain they were taken for; as if the poem enacts the patience necessary to doctor the more gregarious, gaudy, and bulky genres. “Spectre Show” ( 45) delves more intimately, or personally, into the relationship between an affective “state of mind” and a physical illness, presumably a childhood experience of being shy---after being traumatized by the stigma of others deriding her for being different, introverted in the 1st section, a child with “avoidant attachment” in the shell (“does self-storage matter….is this a panic attack” 84), wrestling with “performance anxiety”


                                                         center of the panel

                                                         young dance star rehearses


steel-encased contestant


                                                         rushed to the hospital

                                                         dog bomb & ambrosia


artificial dreams

still-beating heart of a queen


Similarly, “MRI SCAN” (58) (which visually rhymes with the word “musician”) suggests that the sound of a loud marching band---which in many moods can be a festive cathartic occasion—can also bring on a rising blood pressure that is not good for your health (“panic button/bang bang/last sensation’), especially in your 50s in illness when your body & soul are crying out for something slower & quieter. Again, part of the intensity of the portal Win’s poems sweep us up in is that it’s never clear if this is “actual music” (it could be the cloying voice of a fire & brimstone preacher) whether the music lead one to ER, or this is the music of pain in ER. By contrast to this “orchestration of corporal aches and breaks, creaks and sighs, grunts and groans” I like the way Eve Wood puts it, “Win finds a strange redemption in the imagining center(emphasis added), or bonding with her health care professional in a hospital over a belief in magic (even on a the level of a single word as “spectre” reverses into “sceptre”)


trinkets & sceptres & waterfalls in Brazil

dragon fruit scooped into bowls

owls & blue spaces in parking lots  a slithering towards

planted things (62)



Like “MRI Scan,” the later poem “Shops” (75) explores the relationship between physical illness &/or disability and aurality (specifically music), with a wisdom equal to any community music therapist. It’s like a sequel: If “MRI Scan” was a song of experience (in its crisis of sickness & despair), “Shops” may be a song of “higher innocence…” as it presents a playful dialogue that could be interior as well as exterior (but with ample white space to save it from sickening soliloquy). The voice that makes up the three stanzas with a justified left margin (that gets both first word and last word) feels healthier than the voice in the indented stanzas (which recall the sick voices of the breaking down body in Section 2 dealing centrally with illness/disability).


Yet the justified left voice here begins the conversation with the healing powers of a synesthetic poesis:


“phytomineral etudes

at the paw quilt shop” 


What is the relationship between the adjective “phytomineral” and the noun “etudes?” Is the music of the plant or the plant of the music? Is the paw quilt shop the antidote for what’s diagnosed by “CAT scan?” (63) This titular “shop” certainly seems further away from mercantilism than the shops in “Parlor.” The barest hint of touch here could suggest a massage table, massage music:


smelling salts

air guitar & filigree….


the reverie of mobs as the architects

listen for their Ganesh ringtones


Perhaps this “reverie of the mobs” could be contrasted with the “MRI Scan’s” revelry of the mobs


“band marches through the crowd


chimes gongs


a sound bridge”


Or perhaps Ganesh’s (“eastern” or “southern”) spirit of “new beginnings” is meant to contrast with the “malediction but no misfortune” in MRI Scan’s (“western” or “northern”) evangelicals.  The reverie of the mobs feels more like a sensual experience of being alive in the body as a finger moves on a lumbar spine and the distance between a suboccipital and a psoas seems to get bigger than, say, the distance between Burma and California and say “hey, architect, you don’t know yourself, you think you’re some ‘unitary body’ or something, I mean not like we’re mad at you or anything, but really you don’t need a Ganesh ringtone when you can be with the real thinging and unthinging… The architects are the indented voice(s)…


(drawings by Mark Dutcher)

“Shops” uses a strategy Win highlights in section 4, reversibility.  Earlier in the book, Win had referred to reversibility of a moon/coin (27), but though the word is not mentioned in section 4, it’s felt in Win’s careful and brilliant choice of wordless title to frame this section: Mark Dutcher’s rendering of a Rubin Vase, perhaps the most famous example of an image that challenges traditional figure/ground perceptual/conceptual relationships. Some refer to this as an ambiguous image; perhaps ambivalent is a better word, since there’s always a split section, or blink interposing itself between seeing the space between the faces as a vase, and the space surrounding the vase as faces. Win makes use of the affective dimensions of that pairing that, to humans, may not be as readily accessible if she had chosen a duck/rabbit.


How can a poet translate such an image into language?  In one of these poems, “Diorama” (74), she writes: “how does a painting speak? language is the difference/among three things.” In some images of the “Rubin Vase” I’ve seen, the’ lips are almost touching (like in Keats urn?), but in Dutcher’s drawing, their symmetry is more “nose to nose” or “jaw to jaw” (which perhaps could suggest a more negative “staring each other down”) as in “Factory,” when Win writes:


“sound of coworkers arguing in the bathroom

or is it the other way around”                       (72, absence of question mark hers)


If the Rubin vase is merely luma (“black & white self-portraits in bathroom mirrors” 71), Win’s poems in Section 4 become more chroma, dynamic, dioramic, open to more than a mere binary reversibility. Yet the “reversibility” here is not only linguistic and perceptual, but also conceptual and ethical, spiritual/materialist, personal/political, local/global, the public in the private, the private in the public, etc. Nor does the humor in some of these poems preclude their gravitas (the lighter the vase the darker the faces?)


The haiku-like stanzas of “Spirit House”(4) present a mysterious ritual. We first see “two siblings” as figures, or subjects, while the ground is a sense of danger:


sibling follows

sibling into

forest of thorn” (69)


But the line-breaks could also suggest that this is not an image of two siblings, but an image of one. —and that which the faces call the ground is really a vase, or, better, the thorns one, or two, must enter to find a forest to lose “oneself” in:


volcanic relics

sister brother

blue-throated barbets


Do blue-throated barbets really exist? Does such an image have the power to focus on a commonality, must we bring bird and loyal dog together to bring brother and sister together, to traverse the space between, the mystery of the two in the one which is three (a trinity with wider possibilities than the catholic trinity, to say nothing of Freud’s etiolated subject centered maps). Do you feel a sense of peace? There is not that imperial sense of “dominion” over nature, nor of the fear of it that probably spawned such presumption.


The image that ends this ritual:


distant blaze

candle wick floating 

in bowl of oil


invites us to compare the relationship of immediacy and distance, near and far, small and big, matter and spirit (including what’s called heart & mind), objectivity vs, subjectivity. A connection appears established in this conjuring, but it’s left purposely vague—is the candle wick in a bowl of oil a positive image to put out the blaze? Or…..


The two stanzas of “Huts” are also based on contrast, but here they’re more framed temporally, and culturally as well as affectively. On one level, the first stanza seems to depict a childhood remembered, traditional, rural Burmese harvest festival, which seems more positive (even Edenic, prelapsarian) while the second depicts a present American, modern, urban, cleansing ritual known as “going to the laundrymat” (I think of the now-closed Brainwash café that would have live music while you washed). 


The first stanza is an image of fullness, satiation, while the second stanza is an image of emptiness, longing, and wanting (for what’s depicted in the first stanza). There’s also a sense of a natural cycle and reincarnation in the first stanza “butchers/ will find gold hay/ in their belly”---so will the non-meat eating milk drinkers! By contrast to these cows, the speaker has “no breasts/but two dark/drops of hillside.”—the absent is more present, the present more absent, memory and conjuring are both imaginative acts---a symbiosis more dynamic than the myth of ‘neutrality’ in which the two cancel each other out in a dubious reified sense of “presence.”



At other times, Win takes on the voice of a ludic trickster. Like “Shops,” the dialogue in “Restaurant” (73) could be interior and/or exterior (“she met herself in a restaurant”). Is it epideictic or a redacted story? Notably, “Restaurant” (73) is one of the few poems in this collection in which personal pronouns are central, and it could be read as a satire on an overreliance of them--yet any sense of scene, speaker and setting yields to a meditation on names, voices, identity, possession, and reversibility.


I feel the fourth wall breaking down, sweeping the reader up in its lyric drama, when she writes “I recognize her voice because it’s my voice,” and I wonder if I probably only recognize “my voice” in what I think Win is writing, and if any “reading” of this poem will inevitably tell you more about ‘me’ than Win. When she adds, “I think your voice has a name but it’s my name,” is she chiding the interlocutor for imitating, usurping, her voice, or presuming to speak in her name? She could also be questioning conventional ideas of “authorship” as I feel it would be closer to the spirit(s) of this poem if I were to say Win is not the author as much as plural and protean nats are.


The contrast between “voice” and “name” in this poem may be similar to the “vase” and “faces”


 voices between the names 

is like the vase/space between 

the space/face of the names

that frames the voices:[1]                   (one conversation, two names…)


Unlike the more emotionally neutral Rubin vase, however, I get a sense that the speaker shows a clear preference for the voice vase than the name face and their possessive personal pronouns:


What will you bring to table? What is your sir, name?


Perhaps this “sir” is a hollow(ed out), materialist, subject, unable to (embrace) change, trapped in a static sense of time, and reified sense of singularity (of perception and identity), who prejudges voices (of other or self) based on bulky externals—like say race or reputation (“names”)—that prevents them from both truly hearing and speaking (which perhaps could be translated to, “can’t see the vase for the faces”). There’s an ethical contrast implied between a voice of worried containment, and a voice of carpe diem letting go, as if Win, or the nats, are saying, “who needs a name if you got a voice(s)?”

The lighthearted tone of “The Parlors” (73) reminds me of the prose poems of Maxine Chernoff and James Tate. Its short, long-lined (by Win’s standards) stanzas (73) make more of a pact with social realism as they take ethical contrasts in the more public socio-political terms of “we” and “them.” 


a local reported to authorities that a moose

stormed downtown & broke the shop windows


ping pong was back

the bars, the halls, the parlors


In this juxtaposition, the first stanza represents the xenophobic, chthonophobic, “protective,” mindset of police-state capitalism and private property law & order that “sees” a moose (as a synecdoche for “disorderly nature”)—as a threat, in short a “tragic” world view, while the second stanza represents a playful aesthetic comic (recreating) approach to such a ‘moral, practical’ mindset that would deride it as fiddling while Rome burns. This basic contrast is continued in the first two lines of the third stanza--


shopkeepers hid their porcelain figures

we wore bright colors to disorient the animals


The heavy-handed polemicist in me says, “People over profits! Which side are you on, boy?” And, given the backdrop of an official reality in which wars on poverty, drugs, and terrorism have generally had the effect of breeding more of the very things they claim to be fighting, I kinda want to side with the latter as a more effective strategy (even if science would call it superstition), especially when it helps me swerve out of my heavy-handed polemic against heavy-handed polemics with a line like:


wool rugs flapped open to take in the glass


And when it comes to the reversibility of the figure/ground relationship, and the meta-theatricality of the “alienation effect,” the “bouncing white balls” in the 5th stanza may not only refer back to the ping-pong balls, but the movement of words on the page, and a gesture of trans-species solidarity with the freedom of moose-force, as if this moose is another incarnation of Ganesh (who we “saw” in ringtone form in “Shops”), the elephant god of new beginnings, patron of the arts and intellectual wisdom and remover of obstacles!

[1] Barbara Berman (in The Rumpus) writes of how in Storage Unit For The Spirit House, a single word “has so many meanings that it’s tempting to write a long, loopy paragraph on how gratifyingly evocative it is.” I feel that yielding to that temptation attests to the generative quality of the work…


(drawings by Mark Dutcher)

Section 5, however, takes a darker turn, that flesh out in more narrative detail some of the disastrous memories and wounded kinships that were portrayed more impressionistically in Section 1, as if to circle back to the theme of freeing the mother trapped in the tree. The speaker, as a sustained “I” appears more in this section than the others.


The childhood memory in “Spirit House (5)” recalls the cousins who gossiped “she is so idle, not as enterprising as her four sisters” in “Spirit House (1).” I had read the cruel extroverted cousins as female, but in Section 5, gender, and the various forms of “toxic masculinity,” are highlighted.


“the neighbor boys, cruel

one left a dead kitten in a box on the doorstep” (81)


Yet here she can bear the stings of that memory better, as left alone, she finds what others call as deficit as actually a strength:


as a child I did not climb trees

instead I gathered leaves that flew to the ground


It could also be read as a defense of the transformative language, a beautiful childhood sense of metaphorizing, or a poetic laurel-crowning apotheosis:


I made home among the leaves

safely in gold, yellow, brown

invented a family who lived in a tree house

green twig, the mother

broken branch, the father


two ferns, the missing sisters


If Win had put an exclamation point at the end of the last line, it would sound manically excited—but what makes it as sad as it is beautiful is that it’s just left hanging, as if you can’t metaphorize your way out of the prison of solitude.


This reminds me of a passage in Shakespeare in which a character who (as a king) tended to take social life for granted (arrogantly believing it was his birthright), now, left alone in solitary confinement, takes to similar metaphorizing:


I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world:

And for because the world is populous

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,

My soul the father; and these two beget

A generation of still-breeding thoughts,

And these same thoughts people this little world,

In humours like the people of this world,

For no thought is contented….

                                           Shakespeare’s Richard 2 (Act 5, scene 4, 1-11)


I prefer the way Win does it to the way Richard II does it, largely because Win offers a pleasing (and one might say feminist) antidote to Richard’s parthenogenetic patriarchal metaphorizing. While the metaphysics that sees the soul as the father, and the mother as mere material (a vessel) may be, in many ways, the cause of the universal discontent (or say the global catastrophe of the 400 odd years since Shakespeare wrote that)---ah, if only Win had been in Richard’s prison to critique his first attempt at poetry!


Toxic masculinity also appears in “Relationship” in the form of a Freud quote (“love cannot be much younger than the lust for murder”), the word “lovelock,” and the kind of Petrarchan language Shakespeare’s male characters are often satirized by women for using---

 “when they met it was murder

was it her eyes that slayed him

lambent grenades”.  (85)


And, especially in “Den,” which reminds me of my own childhood in many ways, against the backdrop of a patriarchal police dad barking orders, and a heroic self-sacrificing mother. This could be Win’s mother to whom the book is dedicated, but I see my own mother, and many others, who decide to stay in a destructive marriage longer ‘for the sake of the children’ despite the pleas of children saying, ‘we’ll be happier if you’re happier…


In this light (or against this backdrop), I wonder if the book’s final poem’s depiction of a celebratory festive collective expansive spiritual nat pwe ritual (which certainly seems earned after all the darkness that appears in this book) is also meant to signify the marriage of the sisters that can free the mother from the patriarchal tree that confined her, as if the book’s title has indeed reversed to become a Spirit House for the Storage Unit. At the end:


cousin slowly opened a large trunk of teak & silver strips


         the nats flew inside, one after the other after the other. (95…)


They flew in, but Win purposely doesn’t say whether the lid was closed, or if they’re free (at last)…This refusal of closure can be a great liberation, or, as Amanda Moore writes, “offer comfort and continuity, an assurance of wellness and prosperity, but it also reminds us that there is no “once and for all” healing of the present or past trauma… or is it the other way around…  

Chris Stroffolino                

[1] Barbara Berman (in The Rumpus) writes of how in Storage Unit For The Spirit House, a single word “has so many meanings that it’s tempting to write a long, loopy paragraph on how gratifyingly evocative it is.” I feel that yielding to that temptation attests to the generative quality of the work…



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