A Review of Virga by Shin Yu Pai
by Zoey Adam


by Shin Yu Pai

Empty Bowl Press (Aug. 1 2021)

$16 paperback

72 pages

I knew Shin Yu Pai before I read Virga. That is, I could choose to say it that way. I knew her name, her face over Zoom, some professional information, and educational material/advice/readings she gave to my cohort as an authority figure, but did I really know her? No, but Virga is the unfurling of a flower, brimming with wistful, contemplative energy, revealing to us the essence of its maker, Shin Yu Pai: an instructor, mother, past Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington (2015-2017), and captivating poet. The overwhelming boom of the book’s tone is more than enough to corroborate her achievements and my gushing.

I am not religious, nor even spiritual. Yet I felt a weight in my chest lift and settle with the nadir of each poem in this work. Some poems, like “Poems for an Aeolian harp or paintings for the wind,” are sparse. Not in the way that they are missing something, but that they are showing us exactly what we need to see and nothing more. Others are rich with colorful images—koi swimming “in the cataract of blue atlas” or when “shafts of light mimic / rain falling at a slant.” At the beginning of each poem, I found myself bracing for a new venture into tension wrapped in peace wrapped in tension. And underneath all of the trappings of modern poetry, there is a current of discovery tinged with loss. Throughout our lives, we question our meaning in this world, why everything is as it is, how we can come to terms with our short lives and “the urge / to survive.” These are questions that are impossible to answer. But she asks for the sake of the search. 

Pai’s poems focus on being mothered and becoming a mother oneself, the stereotyping of Asian people, Asian folklore, her personal history, and the serenity of nature presented as only itself. Buddhist principles and terminology weave themselves into each poem. Since I am no religious scholar—merely a writer well-acquainted with Google—I credit her for anticipating my ignorance. She provides particular pertinent information that is vital to reaching the meaning she aspires to show us. Though I’m not of the opinion that anyone should have to explain themselves (and really, it’s fitting to the themes of Virga for me to not know already), it is helpful to someone outside of the experience. Through this remarkable, cohesive, 100-ish page piece, I have come to know more of Shin Yu Pai. To delve into those depths that we often pass over on our trip across the water’s surface, only looking at our own reflections. To commiserate. To know the amplitude of both a mother’s love and pain, another person’s formative moments, the lived experience of a Taiwanese-American woman like Shin Yu Pai herself. That is what it means to experience Virga, and I highly recommend giving it a read.

Read Micah Dela Cueva’s Interview with Shin Yu Pai here.

Zoey Adam, hailing from the rural reaches of Berks County, Pennsylvania, is a poet who primarily delves into the complicated interdependence between humans & nature and the experience of living with comorbid mental illnesses & their stigma. She earned a BA in English: Professional Writing from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. Her collection of 71 snow globes spans 21 different states, 5 countries, & countless noteworthy locales.