by John Liddy
Virga, by Shin Yu Pai (Empty Bowl, 2021)
From the opening poem “Empty Zendo” the reader is forewarned as to what to expect from this book by the lines “while I study the interiors/of other human habitations” and, in the following poem “Röhasu” we are allowed into the interior of the poet with the words “I am not/ austere enough to enter/ any cave.” Poem after poem reveal the poet’s concerns (how to bend without breaking), her doubts, regrets, relationships and search for universal truth.
But there is more to behold from the fearless pen of Shin Yu Pai. A walking stick becomes a companion and old mistakes carry their pain. In “St. Ignatius’ Chapel on the Campus of Seattle University” the poet describes her feelings in a dharma talk about giving a dharma talk, “a trimmed down waist w/out love-handles,” the importance of teaching, using clay to comment on life and her relationship with her brother; poems interspliced with Bhutan haiku and other haiku, along with prose pieces wherein moulds are like menstrual cups, the shell of a bronze mould acts as a womb, the flow of river water a lost moment of encounter in our lives, as the Greeks discovered.
There are no full stops at the end of poems, allowing the reader to move from one to the other as though we are flowing in a river of the poet’s thoughts. We can, however, delineate different parts and sections in Virga and each exemplifies and adds to the overall whole, which makes for a near-complete picture of Sin Yu Pai’s successful attempt to capture the rain that never reaches the ground or water that isn’t wet.
The plight of Asian people living in the west is not shied away from, their pursuit of survival no different from that of any other human being, and in the title poem, the poet makes a claim to be, to speak, to express like a “downpour” as against holding her tears. What becomes abundantly clear in the book is the poet’s defense of living with nature
as beings that live
upon the earth we are
learning to relate to place
In a series of haiku “Poems for Aeolian harp (or paintings for the wind),” the poet annunciates:
Place a guitar where there/is wind./Let the breeze/play the open cord
Let the wind move through/you. /Color it with whatever tone/your voice wishes to imbue
In another, I’m not sure about hurling the leaf-blowing machine into the sea but I do understand the motive!
The latter part of the book is taken up with issues such as the possibility of life on exoplanets, the moon’s cycles, real estate speculators, a wry look at activism, color of skin, social commentary, dictators, that metal pillar in the Utah desert, how objects transform themselves, how things become other things as in “Zuihistu in Four Parts for Richard Serra” (Panoramic)
If there is
is it to bracket light
The lockdown also figures as an awakening from dormancy and a search for freedom.
Eastern philosophy and/or Buddhism, is never far from the finger tips of this poet as witnessed in Plunge: If I wish to take hold/ of water’s meaning, what/ would permit me to take that plunge? Also, in the poem, Have you ever tried to bully a wave? The book closes with an elegy for a friend and a poem of love for her son and his godfather.
It is a comforting, meditative and spiritual book that offers some semblance of solace in these harrowing times.
John Liddy writes in and translates from Irish, English and Spanish. He has published many collections, including Madrid and Other Poems (2018/19). His most recent work is Arias of Consolation, released a few months ago. All his Spanish-related poems have been collected in a forthcoming book called Spanish Points. He is on the advisory board of The Hong Kong Review.
Copy editors: Nancy He, Nina Zhang