The Otherworlds of Maw Shein Win

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This review also appears on The Poetry Question

Talking of her revision process, the poet Maw Shein Win says, “I write through and around a poem, I learn by doing.” In this way she teaches the poem to teach her how to write it. She and I sit together in the folding chairs she brought to Arlington Park for our meeting on November 7. Amidst the sounds of children frolicking and cars honking joyfully with the news of a new president, we talk about her brilliant new collection, Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn 2020).

In it there are three poems, placed one after another, titled “Storage Unit 202.” The first has a kind of narrativity — a protagonist is present, a scene is set: we are outside a storage unit in El Cerrito with wild turkeys and our heroine. There are odd things inside — pinned moths and tin pants — but our heroine does not enter, though the oddness of the things sets the stage for the final stanza. Her final action feels as right as it is surreal: she swims laps in a thunderstorm. The first poem in the series reads to me like an overture, a theme is touched upon: faced with the chaos of organic events, we (yes we, her readers, and we, the human) engage in an effort to order. In the second “Storage Unit 202,” the curtain rises on the opened unit, and a group of mismatched things is ordered as a list: “2.a king drinking pear juice trapped in a glass jar/ 3. wet hair & wet fur.” Lists of unlike objects create a joyful tension — forced together along a numbered line, the items resist becoming part of a whole. The poet’s work is a simple act of sequence, and because she has chosen carefully, the final line is both surprising and right: “5. directions to the otherworld.” The otherworld — a place where presence and absence coexist — is where Win invites us to live with her in this collection. In the third poem of this title, a narrator/poet enters the unit and dives deeply into the otherworld, inviting both the experience of passing time and a resistance to its wages:  “inside is a quilt made of yesterday’s tablecloth, today’s plaid coat/& tomorrow’s prayer shawls.”

A storage unit is inevitably a reduction of life’s expansive possibilities. It is by nature a place of pause, a place of restrictions on the field of associations. Giving these three poems the same title struck me as an interesting strategy — it seemed to me to create a kind of axis around which movement can occur and can make the three poems gather together like acts in a play. Elsewhere in the collection titles are repeated, but are numbered as iterations. With her characteristic frankness and warmth, Win tells me that giving these three different poems the same title was a decision she made to solve a problem rather than to develop a strategy per se.

“The numbering of the titles became problematic. It sounded strange to say Storage Unit 202 (one) and Storage Unit 202 (two),” she tells me. Then she shares more about how this collection came to be.

“I am a maximalist,” she jokes. Those who know her would agree that as a person she is cheerful, warm, inclusive, and expansive in personality, though her poems are often quite spare. In this case, she was describing the difficulty of winnowing down the collection of objects she had built up over many years. When she and her partner, the noise rock drummer Tom Scandura, had to move, they at first put their belongings in two storage units, but soon it became clear that they should consolidate to one. Win preferred to give things away rather than sell them. “Slowly things were going home with friends. I held on to photos, letters, ephemera, art, books, and nearly a thousand records, and some clothes, costumes.”

Here we laugh again, because indeed this list confirms Win’s avowed maximalist tendencies. I delight in her identification of the essential — books, nearly one thousand (!) records, and of course, costumes. Win, who often refers to herself as “an old art punk rocker,” has roots in the Southern California punk scene. Music and performance are clearly present in this collection (and not just because it includes the absurd and delightful “Cellars: A One Act Play” which takes place in an abandoned SoCal nightclub in 1980).  She notes that she failed a course in performance art she took when she was at student at Cal State Long Beach. Dressed in a Laurie Anderson style white suit, she performed with a block of ice, which melted (as ice blocks do in art and elsewhere). But when she was asked by the professor to do it again and could not because the ice block was gone, she failed the assignment. We have another laugh at this — I think it gives her more bona fides than getting an A would have.

To return to the otherworld named in “Storage Unit 202” — where exactly might that place be? As I read this collection, I was struck by the feeling that the poet’s answer to the question “where” is the same as the most basic instruction in improvisational theater: yes and. The opening poem in the collection, “Spirit House (one)” references a house on Inya Lake, which is in Win’s parents’ native country of Burma (now Myanmar). The house appears as a weight on the poet’s neck and back, rather than as a setting. The weight of memory, the presence of familial obligation? Yes and.

Win’s vibrant juxtapositions, such as those in the list that forms the second of the “Storage Unit 202” poems, or in “Containers,” which is comprised of ten fragment/questions, beginning with: “what about the spitting cobra/ why do I repeat myself/ does self storage matter,” animate the field around the words as much as the words themselves. “Containers” ends with one fuller, more declarative sentence: “I witness each body through the missing bricks”.  While Win will admit that this collection has autobiographical roots, these poems don’t read as confessions. Instead they are an invitation to look, with the poet, at the images her memory provides, the scenes that can be spied through the wall of the forgotten and the never known. Not everything can be hidden by the walls — physical or imagined or emotionally true, all real — that separate us from one another as we live our separate lives.

In “Den” a mother sprinkles curry powder on her children’s mac ‘n’ cheese and contemplates leaving a father. Born in Massachusetts to Burmese doctor parents, Win moved a lot in her childhood, and her two older sisters remained in Burma when her parents came to this country. They met in medical school and had come to the United States so that her father could pursue his residency at Harvard. After spending time in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Nevada, Win settled in for high school in Orange County, finding herself one of the few people of color in her class. She credits her father with turning her on to the rock of the sixties and seventies that he loved, but expresses that she found her niche in punk and the absurdist sensibility that is revealed in (some) performance art. Working with her friend Kathleen Munnelly as co-editor and publisher of Comet magazine in the early 2000s, Win provided a venue for art and arts commentary that flies in the face of conformity. As a poet, a collaborator with musicians and visual artists, and as a teacher, she finds she frequently returns to certain sources.

“I’ve thought a lot about elements — air, ether, fire, water — I’ll use those as jumping off points for workshops,” says Win. The inaugural poet laureate of El Cerrito and a 2019 Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at UC Berkeley, Win has been teaching for many years, sharing with her students her love of language and its many possibilities for revelation and concealment.

She has also thought a lot about the ultimate spirit house, the living body. In “State of Mind” scars become mountainous topography, but the landscape brims with treats for children and teacakes hang from trees. In “Imaging Center” the poet’s back on a treatment table is “slow as the motion of a snail in love.”

“The body is a container of pain, but also is the release of pain. I wanted this book to be about containment, but also about release,” she says. The otherworld of these poems is a place where such seeming contradictions co-exist and flourish. There are poems about sky and water that reflect the possibility that sky is a limit as much as an opening, and that water is both a conductor and a force of restriction. A poem itself might be considered a portal or a blockage against what else it might become.

As she began to develop this collection, Win learned more about storage units around the country. That they are a big and growing business should not be a surprise at a time when economic insecurity has led many to downsize or become homeless. A storage unit might be a stop gap, or it might be the end of a road. Storage Unit for the Spirit House is a book of simultaneity and multiplicity, as lively and full of movement as it is still and reflective. It is an invitation to consider something as small as a pinned moth and as large as a whole life lived and still unfolding. 

The otherworld might be a space for seeking the meaning and function of the ultimate and of human life, which is often the purview of religion. Win was raised in a Buddhist household. Her mother, Ayya Gunasari, to whom she dedicates this collection, was ordained as a bhikkhuni, a Buddhist nun in the Theravada tradition. Gunasari pursued her calling later in her life, after having a career as an anesthesiologist and raising five children. Win does not tell this history directly in this collection, but curry powder on mac ‘n’ cheese speaks of American and not, and a prayer shawl in a storage unit might suggest a latent spiritual journey or ritual habit. Nats, spirits of place honored by shrines called spirit houses, are present throughout the collection, as tricksters stealing hair, as presences brandishing pocket knives and flowing into a teak and silver box.

The poems in this collection don’t approach metaphysical questions head on, but I feel that they are in keeping with something that the Buddha said: see for yourself. Win offers up one evocative image after the other — brown hands on an oar, a flooded temple, a human body moving like a snail across a treatment table — so that we, her lucky readers, can see for ourselves where meaning might lurk.


  1. Though I’m very familiar with Win’s brilliant collection, Storage Unit for the Spirit House, I gleaned a new understanding of my fellow poet and friend’s collection due to Elizabeth’s concise and delightful examination. “It is an invitation to consider something as small as a pinned moth and as large as a whole life lived and still unfolding,” is definitely true when reading the poems of Maw Shein Win.

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