Soulful Spaces: On Maw Shein Win’s “Storage Unit for the Spirit House”

October 1, 2020

In her stunning second collection, Storage Unit for the Spirit House, poet Maw Shein Win declares, among other things, that we must “beware statuesque rabbits who have abandoned their stations.” Win suggests that our lives depend on it, and perhaps they do, given the strange and unsettling nature of the world today. Win’s poems feel vital and necessary, a surrealistic call to arms to awaken our souls before it is too late. André Breton wrote, “Nothing that surrounds us is object; all is subject,” meaning that everything that exists around us, from the most mundane to the most sublime, is a reflection of our human desire, and becomes a surface onto which we project all the complexities that inform our lives. Win’s collection takes as its literal subject compartments, vessels, and spaces, such as storage units, vases, tombs, towers and hallways. The objects they house are enigmatic — they derive from human consciousness.


Guiding the reader through these spaces is the common nat, a Buddhist animist deity from Win’s homeland of Burma, whose small size renders it soulless.  In Win’s world, these tiny, overlooked creatures, who warm themselves by a flame or take up residence inside an old trunk, function much like a Greek chorus, underscoring subtle themes and speaking for the deposed, the dispossessed, the loveless and the forlorn — those among us who have forgotten the inherent magic of the living world. When a forest nat “haunts the master closet among the clothes moths and felt wolverines,” Win suggests that our memories of childhood, enigmatic and unreliable as they are, constitute the means by which we all lead inherently haunted lives. These past rooms or vessels consume us, whether they appear as “a storage unit filled with boxes of LPs, Joni, Dylan, Carly, back cover of Jimi Hendrix Experience: on two hits of acid,” or “at the laundromat [where] the stars were huts and I wanted to move there become a hut or a tulip.” Win is not suggesting however that we are the victims of our pasts, but that like the nat, we should learn to occupy the past, to take our place there without shame or guilt; perhaps she is suggesting that to live more squarely in the present, we must inhabit the past and the present simultaneously.


Indeed, at times these poems read very much like nuggets of Buddhist philosophy as though Win were channeling the wisdom of the great Buddhist thinker Pema Chödrön who says that “nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” Win understands this concept better than most — that only by revisiting and unpacking our “spiritual storage units,” perhaps over several lifetimes, can we ever hope to hand off the keys to someone else. Win would argue that within these energized spaces, we learn to grow, haunted as we may be. In one such haunting an “only son trapped in premonition, whispers in the ear, a leap from above,” as though the father with three daughters to whom he whispers secretly longs for a son who never came. This sense of longing at once serene and fierce, brutal and tender, permeates the collection.


Illness also pervades the collection, the sense that the body is at odds with the spirit. An orchestration of corporeal aches and breaks, creaks and sighs, grunts and groans play themselves out in opposition to the soul, whose longing exists forever whereas the body’s does not. “Bone (pantoum),” exemplifies this contradiction poignantly as the poet describes the painful awareness that her own body is breaking down and failing her, but the doctors keep reminding her to take better care of her “human vessel,” because “your fluids are down, dark cherry juice in drops and drips.” The pantoum’s repeated lines, like the body in decline, raise the same questions over and over, but without clearly delineated answers. Thus, Win is forced to confront “bone against bone, the detachment of hips, dislocation of sorrow,” yet within this dislocation, the poet finds herself alive and fighting for her life. Yet Win finds a strange redemption in the imaging center, where “the pointer stick she grips trails (her) twisting spine” and she rests on a metal examining table, whose “coolness hardens into memory.” In Win’s world, every memory, loss, and painful recollection is transformed into a luminous experience.


It is as though Win operates a time machine, moving through the experiences of her life with great alacrity, erring always on the side of self-awareness and wisdom. Win longs for memory the way some people long for wealth or fame. One has the sense that it is an essential component of her daily life. So too is the belief that optimism and joy are vital to human existence, which we see whether she is “riding her wooden bicycle along the dust path,” or listening to the “sound of coworkers arguing in the bathroom.” From these simple moments, the poet derives a sense of peace, however fleeting it may be.


Ultimately, one has the sense that Win’s storage units, as varied and unusual as they are — large or small, full or empty, inhabited or uninhabited — represent moments of necessary stillness in a world where achieving stillness, or self-reflection seems almost impossible. It is as though Win were instructing us to tend to our own souls, to nourish them, to surround ourselves with beauty, even if that beauty is ringed in sadness. Like the nats that inhabit these spirit houses, we must all “zoom through the house with pocket knives, tamarind seeds, green bananas,” in order to be truly engaged with the world that surrounds us. After all, the world is as much within us as we are in the world.


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Eve Wood’s art criticism has appeared in many publications, including The New York Review of Books, Angeleno Magazine, Flash Art, Tema Celeste, Whitehot Magazine, Bomb, and Artillery. She is the author of five books of poems from university presses and her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, 1997, Antioch Review, Poetry, New letters, Witness, Confrontation, and many other venues. Also a visual artist, her work has been exhibited at Susanne Vielmetter, Western Project, Angles Gallery, Vincent Price Museum, and Western Carolina Museum.