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Negotiating Space

by Seth Amos

Storage Unit For The Spirit House, Maw Shein Win, Omnidawn, Oakland, California, 2020, 104 pages, $17.95 paperback,

"the nats have stolen my hair"

SO DECLARES THE OPENING line of Maw Shein Win's most recent collection of poems, Storage Unit for the Spirit House. With this line, Win immediately places us in the action. We have no time to ask questions or figure out where we are or how we got there. One detail is already made clear, though: the barrier between spiritual and physical has been destroyed.

The book's epigraph comes from Qiao Dai, a Ph.D. student of South and Southeast Asian Studies at University of California, Berkeley: "Nats are spirits believed to have the power to influence the everyday life of people in their orbit." They maintain supreme power over specific locations and "small shrines called spirit houses are often placed in a village or even inside or near a worshipper's house where offerings can be made to the local nat." They are protectors and preservers, but they can also inflict harm if due and proper honor is not paid to them.

The book is about these spirits, their oscillation between guardian and destroyer, and the spaces they cohabitate with us—compartments, prisons, cinemas, vases, lake houses, storage units. It's about movement within and between: "Eye that repeats itself in conversation / with other eye" and "radio between stations" as Win writes in "Portal."

Each poem in Storage Unit is a portal, a space as well as what's inside of it. Win leads us down Eliot's "passage which we did not take / Towards the door we never opened / Into the rose-garden." Each is a microcosm of the outside world, containing within it all necessary actions and reactions to keep it suspended and moving towards its entropy. Win brings us to the edge of that entropy, asking "when does the future arrive" ("Theater in Three Acts"). The poems tell us it has come and gone many times, always transformed into the present, always just out of reach.

One of Win's greatest gifts is the ability to render the absurd honestly. We do not question the surreality Storage Unit presents because its precision instills a trust in us. This is all too exact to be anything but true; there are rules and laws—scientific and prosodic—giving us our "directions to the otherworld" ("Storage Unit 202"), through which we "witness each body through the missing bricks" ("Containers").

Win's adroitness with language and concision are evident throughout the book, not just in terms of usage and placement, but in the spaces between words. Consider "When the galley convicts clanked out of the prison in their chains," where a sutured line occupies the space between stanzas so that no spirits may fly through their words and interrupt their meaning:

roses eyes leather

belt light popped

corks on floor


The language, spare but ligamental, demonstrates Robert Creeley's well-worn maxim: "content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content." In Storage Unit, Win shows us that when you find yourself in the orbit of such scrupulous spirits, it might be difficult to speak in complete sentences:

empire of sound

stage abandoned

invisible construct

(from "Theater in Four Acts," page 44)

"Bone (pantoum)," the book's zenith, is perfectly contained and sustained, a microcosm of Storage Unit. Here, Win steps out of the laconic and into form, echoing the reader's movement through the book's earlier portals. There are no nats in this poem, but their residual presence is felt through the narrator's repeated struggle: "grating & scraping of weight-bearing hips." "Bone (pantoum)" is a room within a room, and each stanza (Italian for "room") is itself contained. As the form of the pantoum requires, there's a little bit of the previous stanza put into the next and a little bit left behind. Everything left behind is eventually reconciled as the opening line becomes the final line of the poem:

the bones of a woman the marrow groans

aches & breaks a fissure a furrow

scraping & grating bone against bone

detachment of hips dislocation of sorrow

aches & breaks a fissure a furrow

the brakes of the car an unsettling sound

detachment of hips dislocation of sorrow

align the axle your fluids are down

Storage Unit is not necessarily about trying to get away from the nats but learning to negotiate space with them. "Spirit House (six)," the book's final poem, reads:

medium danced wildly in living room, drunk on palm wine

spinning, spinning

orchestra of circle drums & copper bells played on the staircase

nat pwe

A nat pwe is a festival held to propitiate the nats. And this poem tells us that the book is a nat pwe in itself, an orchestrated, entrancing dance. It comes to rest, finally, in a room within a room:

a nat warmed itself by the flame

auntie walked in a dream state

hot room

cousin slowly opened a large trunk of teak & silver strips

the nats flew inside, one after the other after the other.

Seth Amos is Poetry Editor of Red Bridge Press and Rivet Journal. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

— posted APRIL 2021

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