on Virga by Shin Yu Pai

Virga, a derivation of the Latin word for “branch,” is the name for rain that dries before it touches the ground, appearing as a mass of streaks diffusing underneath a dark cloud. Shin Yu Pai’s newest collection, Virga, is a poetic reenactment of this meteorological occurrence. While venerating her genealogy, Pai illustrates how rain, like diaspora, becomes pixelated with time, dissipating into new forms with “the residue of each past spark.” In this mesmerizing collection, Pai intertwines meditations on Buddhist cosmology, political insurgency, and motherhood in an effortless flow from luminous witnessing to revolutionary unrest. 

The collection opens with a series of haikus that follow the tradition of Tang Dynasty lyric poets such as Wang Wei and Du Fu: with a neutral eye, Pai writes of her pilgrimage to Tiger’s Nest, a holy temple in Bhutan. In these haikus, Pai engages in pure witness, recording stimuli in its bare forms. It is as if the reader experiences an end to cognition and the disappearance of the speaking subject: “rice grains in the window / seat at the temple / remnants of offerings.” The act of reading then becomes a process of unraveling that restores a prior fullness before these images were tainted by language. Pai uses poetry as a mirror, a site for “the gathering darkness / of my many selves,” exhibiting total contact with the physical world without assimilating it into a narrative. These unadorned haikus illustrate pure immersion without interpretation, reflecting the true emptiness of phenomena. Disarmingly sparse, the poems promise presence only through absence, transparencies which cannot be reconciled, consumed, or made more intact. Pai gives us this unmediated encounter with the real without an impulse to unify. 

Pai then transitions from the haiku form to a more recognizably lyric mode, guiding her reader through the tactile experience of making 108 clay tsa-tsas, sacred Bhutanese reliquary objects. In this practice, she revels in the amorphousness of her creations, how her final product does not always bear the imprints of her mold—“anything can go wrong, at any time.” Her mud is an “uncarved block,” the Taoist phrase for the barren state of nature. In transcribing her act of choosing the clay, applying the glaze, and firing the kiln, she gives form to material, embracing the “specter of failure” as a poetics against teleology, “perfection a wholeness / complete unto itself.” Pai’s abandonment of the perfect tsa-tsa, which cannot exist beyond her ideation, paves a clearing into somatic unknowability. The relinquishment of desire to possess with the ego is a recurring theme, complicated by the loss of objects that are unmournable. 

The grief of this collection begins with the self-immolation of a Buddhist teacher and concludes with the drowning of a close friend in Deer Harbor, Washington. These elegiac poems frame the text, the departed presences of deceased loved ones burning lucidly throughout. In the pandemic’s isolation, Pai grapples with a loss of communion, resorting to looking at “the interiors / of other human habitations / transmitted over computer cams.” In this collective desolation she instructs us to engage in ritual practice as a point of unity, a congregation of the living with the dead:

write the epitaphs of those
you have lost on separate sheets
of spirit paper, fit the words
into the shape of each golden
foil, when you are done
char them to ash leaf by leaf 

These guided meditations unearth specters of the past to enact a more proper burial on the whitespace of the page, asking:

if there is
a method
to capturing
time’s memory
is it to bracket light.

Perhaps it is the desire to imprint these layers of memory, however palimpsestic, and mimic the pleasure of its repetition, a cyclical mourning where the goal is not to heal but instead reckon with the wound.

Pai’s private losses are punctuated with the racial grief potent during President Trump’s inauguration. In the insurrection summer after George Floyd’s murder, she engages closely with the spatial resonance of the greater Seattle area, excavating sites of resistance and abjection in response to colonial enterprises. Locations she evokes include a public park renamed after the counter-policing activist Donnie Chin, the Century Building that private investors failed to transform into low-income housing, Edith Macefield’s childhood home in Ballard that she refused to sell to mall tycoons, and a graveyard littered with defaced monuments. Pai reminds us that it matters how we trace a geography, that the act of signification can become a violence, how this violence is destined to resurface in “spite mounds, spite house / the acid of spite poem.” Still, even in struggles for sovereignty that end in the infliction of deeper wounds, Pai holds the view that “all spaces have the capacity to become sacred—the shell of a bronze mold acts as a womb. The writing desk, the uninhabited heart, the college lecture room.” 

Pai then glances at an elsewhere across the ocean, recollecting her family’s homeland in Taiwan. In a prose piece dedicated to the poet Koon Woon, she writes of her place within the greater Chinese diaspora:

Yet across dialect, generation, and clan, we do not ask whether we belong to one another. Like the koi that you choose to seal your stories, the connection to what’s Chinese transmutes into care for all our relations.

Pai delineates a kinship that transcends borders and bloodlines, rooted in the exigency of collective survival rather than in national identity. This gestures toward the formation of a new coalitional politic; like koi submerged in water, we cannot see with lucidity, but we can feel the ripples of those who move alongside us. Diaspora is illustrated as an exilic state where home is a spatiotemporal fixture perpetually made and unmade, echoing James Baldwin’s reminder that “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” On the ancestral tribal lands of the Duwamish people, Pai teaches us how to inhabit without propertizing, how this visitation is a gift:

as beings that live
upon this earth we are
learning to relate to place;
leave a mark that’s made
without the use of harm.

In the final segment of the collection, the poems move toward an ethereal realm: images of karmic rebirth are evoked incongrously with the cyclical nature of eternal return. She writes of her pregnancy, the precipice of her body making space for another:

in the fluid of the womb before
human life pushes outward,
the memory is already etched with
the residue of each past spark.

In the wake of new life, she contends with the force of its binary opposition, showing the inextricable nature of decay and regeneration. Time seems to move recursively in the final section of this collection, orbiting a centerless thing “in this being reborn.” When Pai gives birth to her son Tomo, she becomes his student, unlearning the world around her through his unfiltered gaze. In moments of beauty and unbecoming, she sees his “primal recognition” of an inert knowledge, one that is not experiential. Much like the ending of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, which evokes the figure of the child as a sign of futurity, Tomo’s birth is not a redemptive instrument for the violence that emanates, but a window into the full world, obscure from a distance but growing luminous and manifest when we approach it. 

Virga is a collection that urges us to think in dialectics. Pai asks: how can we foster a spirituality that accepts the inevitability of suffering while also catalyzing us to rectify the conditions that produce suffering? How do we abolish desire that radiates from the ego and enact the urgency of another world’s arrival? How can we resist alienation as well as this country’s slow inoculation? How can we subscribe to a revolutionary time that is cyclical while believing in an abolitionist horizon that is somewhere beyond? These questions reverberate and recede from one another, contouring the page’s cartography of light. The migration of bodies across water and the transmigration of souls are juxtaposed until their significations collapse into each other, becoming singular and diffuse. Pai’s training in Buddhism informs her access to the prelinguistic and ineffable until “you / who are nothing but ears, / arrive wide awake.” The poems in this book are droplets of rain that forget their source, morphing fluidly into new forms before they touch the earth. 

 

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Virga. By Shin Yu Pai. Anacortes, WA: Empty Bowl Books, 2021. 72 pp. $16.00.

 

Angie Sijun Lou is a Kundiman Fellow and a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her writings have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Best Small Fictions, Poetry Northwest, The Kenyon Review, FENCE, The Asian American Literary Review, Hyphen, The Margins, and others. She lives in Oakland.