Poetry

Maw Shein Win’s ‘Storage Unit for the Spirit House’

 

Storage Unit 202

 

I crawl into the pod formerly known as storage unit 202

inside is a quilt made of yesterday’s tablecloth, today’s plaid coat

& tomorrow’s prayer shawls

the storage unit emits a humming sound

occasionally a high-pitched note bounces off the metallic walls

I cook peas in the pod

I drink moonshine at dawn

 

observations:

one might sense a breath over a face

one may envision the tourists trampling
the wildflower superbloom

one can sleep alone with a space heater

 

 

 

Spirit House (six)

 

 the nats had moved into the house on Inya Lake

zoomed through halls with pocket knives,
tamarind seeds, green bananas

family offerings of jade bracelets, cheroot cigars, deer tails

medium danced wildly in living room, drunk on palm wine,
spinning, spinning

orchestra of circle drums & copper bells played on the staircase,
 …nat pwe

eight children on the floorboards, leaping over uncles & cousins,
 …shaking, shaking

mother lit candles on the wall shrine

she spoke to the blue winged insects

they whispered back

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

 

 

 

 

Excerpted from Storage Unit for the Spirit House by Maw Shein Win. Published by Omnidawn and used with permission. All rights reserved. Buy a copy of the book here.

Listen to Maw Shein Win read “Storage Unit 202” and “Spirit House (six),” and enjoy these video poems for “Spirit House (four)” and “Spirit House (five).”

Maw Shein Win is a poet, editor, and educator who lives and teaches in the Bay Area. Her poetry chapbooks are Ruins of a glittering palace (SPA/Commonwealth Projects) and Score and Bone (Nomadic Press). Invisible Gifts: Poems was published by Manic D Press in 2018. Win was a 2019 Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at U.C. Berkeley. She is the first poet laureate of El Cerrito, California (2016–2018), and her poetry collection Storage Unit for the Spirit Housewill be published by Omnidawn in October 2020. She often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers. mawsheinwin.com [Editor’s Note: Maw Shein Win was previously featured in this column here.]

 

Commentary by Amanda Moore

To enter the spirit houses, storage units, and myriad spaces Maw Shein Win opens for us in the pages of her new collection Storage Unit for the Spirit House is to enter a universe where familiar objects and structures take on new shapes and significance. The poems are tight, condensed, and without digression, and the result is transporting. Shein Win sets scenes with particularity and immediacy to fully immerse the reader in each storage unit or sky, water, or physical space, and her sparing use of punctuation, along with lineation that includes short lines and ample white space, dictate a slow, thoughtful pace. Along the way, we encounter spirits—nats described in the lengthy epigraph to the book as “spirits believed to have the power to influence the everyday life of people in their orbit.” These nats aren’t always a material presence, but their influence is felt throughout, drawing a strong line between the physical and spiritual realms.

The book’s opening sequence features three poems titled “Storage Unit 202,” which offer increasingly intimate glimpses of the unit from outside and within. I’ve chosen the third and final poem to discuss because it allows us to move with the speaker as she “crawl[s] into the pod formerly known as storage unit 202.” Time is a disorienting feature, and we are arriving at a place that has undergone transformation—what used to be storage unit 202 is now a pod, something perhaps more organic or comforting than the concrete and tin of typical storage units. The poem’s later reference to “metallic walls” makes clear that this transformation is more metaphoric than actual. That the speaker is crawling to enter it indicates either that the pod is snug with a small entryway or that the speaker is only able to move on her hands and knees, exhausted, or maybe in an attitude of reverence.

Inside the unit, the speaker finds “a quilt made of yesterday’s tablecloth, today’s plaid coat & tomorrow’s prayer shawls,” an object that binds past, present, and future. It’s exciting to encounter this temporal variance, especially as storage units tend otherwise to evoke a sense of the past: old furniture, boxes of memories and heirlooms, items no longer useful but still valuable. In contrast, the quilt includes elements of today and tomorrow, activating the space with life and a glance at a promised future. Stitched together with a tablecloth that evokes home or hearth, the coat is a protective element that could warm the speaker inside or outside the pod in the present, and the prayer shawls are a connection to the spirit world, the nats, and the promises of tomorrow and perhaps an afterlife. The quilt is tactile, something one might want to touch or wrap around one’s body. This quality moves the poem into the sensory realm, examining sounds and tastes as the speaker notices the “humming” that bounces off the walls and, in a fun bit of wordplay, cooks “peas in the pod.”

The final portion of the poem shifts to “observations” and retreats from both the first-person speaker who climbs into the unit and the specificity of the objects inside. The first observation, that “one might sense a breath over a face,” conjures an eeriness because the breath and face are both disembodied. The indefinite article “a” bestows anonymity and universality, meaning any entity could be breathing upon any face, including our own. The attention paid to even the smallest elements of language in Shein Win’s poems is significant—she wields word choice, syntax, and elision purposefully. In the next line, for example, she continues to use the universal pronoun “one” as the subject, observing that “one may envision” the destruction of “the wildflower superbloom.” “May envision” as a subjunctive verb form casts us into a speculative space, also a real space or place where “one can sleep alone with a space heater.” Notice the way declarative verbs in the first half (“I crawl,” “I cook,” and “I drink”) give way later to verbs that are conditional and much less assertive. That she concludes with sleep recalls me to the earlier cooking and domestic activities I don’t readily associate with a storage unit. This is how Shein Win helps us reimagine what a storage unit is or can be, and how space will work in her book.

Storage Unit for the Spirit House closes on “Storage Unit (six),” the sixth in a series of storage unit poems that open each of the book’s six sections. This poem starts with the now-familiar nats and is a bookend to the book’s very first poem, which also begins with nats and is similarly set in the “house on Inya Lake” in Myanmar. This final poem finds the house transformed from something pressing “down on [the] neck & back” of the speaker to something lighter and happier, with nats zooming through halls. Like many of Shein Win’s poems, the poem centers on a rich list, this one cataloging what the nats carry with them, from “pocket knives, / tamarind seeds, green bananas” to things left by the family as offerings—“jade bracelets, cheroot cigars, deer tails.” These items are simultaneously particular and incongruous, giving a sense of the setting and of the democratic taste of the nats, who carry both the precious and the common with equal enthusiasm.

The stanzas move from listing objects to listing actions, each performed in the past tense: the “medium danced,” an orchestra “played on the staircase,” children were “leaping over uncles & cousins,” and “mother lit candles.” The quick movement between these actions imbues the poem with a fragmentary sense of memory, and I sense the speaker is one of the leaping children, able to grasp the outline of the scene but not necessarily its significance. The tone is celebratory, describing a large family under one roof enjoying music, and the poem’s conclusion is the perfect closing gesture for the whole collection. Mother speaks to the spirits, auntie ambles about in a “dream state,” a “large trunk is opened,” and “the nats flew inside one after the other after the other.” Their containment in a trunk that includes “teak & silver strips” associates the nats with family heirlooms, something carried between generations. I read this as care, the kind of spirit-honoring the book’s epigraph reminds us is necessary to ward off “illness, injury or disaster.” The end of the poem and the book thus offer comfort and continuity, an assurance of wellness and prosperity for the family and speaker we have come to know through their storage units and spaces.

 

 

Coeditor Amanda Moore‘s debut collection Requeening was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published with HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.

 

 

 

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