Impossible now to see the phrase “Standing Water” and not think of Zika; of the ads on the subway, especially the one in neon blue-and-yellow, with text that appears as if stamped on. “FIGHT BACK NYC,” the campaign demands, in block letters. The first step to preventing the spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses, the ad instructs, is removing standing water—from trash cans, from the drainage trays of potted plants—so mosquitoes can’t breed.
I worried when first encountering Standing Water, the debut collection of poetry from Eleanor Chai, that an association with Zika would distract from the book’s merits. The threat of infection was fully on my mind: I’d tucked it in my bag as I was preparing to leave for five days in Cartagena, Colombia, which is classified by the CDC as alert level 2 (“Practice Enhanced Precautions”). Yet it turns out that the specter of tropical, sexually transmitted disease is not a distraction at all. It’s an excellent frame through which to read Chai’s debut.
The narrative collection of poems follows Chai’s efforts to grapple with the story of her birth and its repercussions, revealed to her only late in life. Raised by her mother’s parents in Korea after her mother experienced severe post-partum depression and was institutionalized, Chai was returned to her Western father, an unknown, virtually foreign child, at the age of 5. Caught between cultures and momentarily robbed of language—her father refused to let her speak Korean upon her return—Chai wrests with themes of disease, inheritance, and language through the text.
What is standing water and why are we so afraid of it? What horrors could possibly lurk in a still pool? In the titular, long poem, which forms the second section of the book, Chai offers a primer: “A finer incubator for plague than running or / flowing water, standing water poses / a grave danger when the weather is warm enough. / A breeding kingdom for vectors and disease lies / beneath the still impassive surface— / Malaria. Yellow-Fever. Cholera.”
“Standing Water” is narrative, spiraling outward from Chai’s dread-inflected depiction of standing water, where “Strain / humanity will never be rid of—” grows, to a meeting between Chai and her father having dinner in Paris, France. It is a moment of anagnorisis, as Chai learns her origin story for the first time. The mood is stony, Chai reflects: “Whatever he was looking for or from / I am the uninvited one.” Laypeople speak of fighting disease, as though it belongs only to outside forces, but by the time we are infected it’s already incubated within us, unseen and often undetectable. The uninvited one. What grows without our notice? Mosquito larvae, Zika, Vibrio cholerae, mental illness. Children, who might seem to belong to a parent but quickly become their own. (What breeds within our breeding?) In children, too, incubate inheritances, revealed as time goes on—a father’s round eyes, a mother’s startling curtain of dark hair.
Throughout “Standing Water,” and the book itself, Chai zooms back and forth in scope, panning from the visceral image of V. cholerae, which cause cholera, to straightforward narration, as in the moment of revelation from her father.
Death by dehydration derived from a simple organism found in
warm standing water
is ingested into its own Elysium: the moist, warm loam of the bowel,
forcing rapid secretion.
He continues. He goes for the kill.
I can see it in his eyes, I can feel it in mine:
they dilate wide as eggs.
I will not flinch at what he says.
“Once you were born, she was never the same,
but I didn’t really know her anyway…
I met her once before we married.
With the boys, she was strange for a few months
… she got better. With you, she stayed strange”—
Strange? Chai wonders. What is strange? Chai herself, for one, whose very existence acts as a wedge between her and her family, a blockage of sorts—in a few poems, she mentions experiencing violence from her older brother, the eldest child angry that his mother was taken away. This strangeness is specific and has character: it refers to mental illness, of course, but also to race. Throughout Standing Water, Chai alludes to her biracial identity with modifiers that keep it on the surface of the text, ever-present reminders for the reader: the “exotic” wood of a Parisian bar, the “oriental” visual of V. cholerae, white particles in “rice water.” In combining the language of disease (“eggs,” even, in the above stanza, conjure not omelettes but mosquito larvae ready to hatch), with the language of the exotic, Chai invokes the fear of contamination by the other.
The story of Chai’s entire existence is born of out of this fear of contamination: that her birth might send her mother spiraling, as it did, into post-partum depression; that her presence is a reminder of that which took the beloved mother away. (Chai notes that her father didn’t want her to be born, but there was only one physician willing to perform an abortion, and only in a living room—and thus she came to be.) Anchoring her narrative with the imagery of infectious disease makes Chai’s dramatic family history vibrate at a higher pitch, colored by fear of contamination. It feels particularly prescient now, under threat of Zika, where we must remember that some diseases are new and that science is tremendously ad hoc; that what breeds in standing water and what breeds within us isn’t necessarily fully understood.
* * *
As the foreign, displaced nature of Chai’s identity manifests itself across the surface of the text in carefully chosen modifiers, it also manifests in the presence of Chai’s body, particularly her face, which appears in the text twofold: in the face of her mother and in that of the model for a Rodin sculpture, Little Hanako, which Chai encounters while in Paris.
What was it about seeing the Head of Sorrow, Head of Hanako,
after eating sorbet cones by the path from the pond?
Head of Little Flowers, how could you have caused
a father to speak so? You are where it began.
Rodin’s only Japanese model, Hanako, in whose sculpted face Chai encounters a likeness, haunts the book: both her biography—or Chai’s semi-mythologized account—and her immortalization in Rodin’s rough-hewn sculptures, on which Chai writes several ekphrases, taking on the voice of Hanako herself. “I am but a path— a figure / of dying, as when his fingers pressed my masticating / jaw, pinched my sideways eye looking into the other.” Little Hanako cuts a tragic, triumphant figure across the text, her body turned into a vector of expression. She is made art, but it’s in art that she endures: “I am long dead, but I survive.”
Of her mother, Chai writes: “She who made me, made me in her likeness. / I was she before I was mine, or yours or his, or I. // My square head and Westerner’s wide eyes were questioned in regard to my worth and blessing.” Though she seems to have escaped her mother’s fate, their resemblance still haunts her—the ways in which they are similar, which stretch across space and time. Chai’s resemblance to the mother she didn’t know she had culminates in a recollection of discovering an old photograph of her parents:
I don’t have a mother. I don’t
have a mother—and by magic, there she was:
standing beside my hollowed
father, head tilted, looking deep into my face
with her stiff, polished gaze. She looked
like a mask, she looked like my skin:
forebodingly strange, then utterly native.
Having witnessed where she was from, Chai is forced to face her origins, and her physical embodiment of those origins. “Once I saw the figure of my mother, / her face, I could no longer imagine / I was immune to biology.” What do we inherit? Do we always know? Standing Water suggests that we do not, that we cannot. After all, none of us are immune to biology.
* * *
In “Trust,” Chai opens with a bucolic first sentence: “This is my calm world: sesame and soy and fat golden melon— / This world is glazed celadon, blues, grays, olives and clay.” Chai forgoes the tight enjambment that characterizes many of her poems, which force the reader down each stanza without a sure idea of where it ends, favoring longer, neatly encapsulated lines in “Trust,” a poem about returning to Korea, where her “childhood lies / where and when it survives.” It is a gentle reminder of not only what Chai has lost but what she has loved—a surprisingly quiet, vulnerable confession in the midst of a chaotically emotional text.
In the second half of Standing Water, Chai moves from a roil of anguish to a kind of reckoning. The revelation from her father that begins the book is offset by a reunion with her mother, who is in her last days. The narrative turns from discovery to reflection, particularly as Chai considers her lost language, Korean. “All that was left: in my mouth alone. / No one spoke what I spoke. / My father thought it bad for my education.”
What happens when we lose our tongues? Language is where thoughts are made—not had, perhaps, but articulated. Upon returning to her father, Chai spoke no English. “For some time I had no language— / no language spoke for me, of me, to me.” Her body, then, became her way of making sense of the world: “How I felt became what I knew. This persists— / I feel before knowing, often the two are fused.” Perhaps it’s apt, then, that Chai has used poetry, and not prose, to chronicle this narrative. Her poems are not easy, they do not yield information immediately. What they yield is emotion and a series of impressions. “When the wound began I had no language, / no words to shape my experience.” Grief, longing, haunting. The poems of Standing Water require work to understand, close reads as if with a magnifying glass, delving below the surface of each compact, enjambment-packed stanza, forcing the reader through a process of discovery not unlike Chai’s own experience of her origin story. At times, it feels as though Chai and the reader are learning things at the same time: “you just heard my beginning and so did I.”
“I have to write myself in / to make my way out of the / tiny child on the screen,” Chai says, of watching an old family movie. Perhaps because Chai is telling a story that belongs to her but for which she is not a primary source, Chai writes from referents—from a home video, from photographs and sculptures and objects, drawing on things that are made to make herself.
At the end of the book, after her mother’s death—“Since I made you, you may / imagine I set myself on fire— / or better, say: you lit the funeral pyre / from ten thousand days away”—Chai finds herself with totems, “Beloved Remains.” The first poem of the book, “Opticks,” considers the “intimate / objects found years later,” stained with “disaffection”; the last, “Head of Little Flowers,” reveals the writing of Chai’s own mother, Japanese lines on bits of paper bundled into silk kerchiefs. But the gulf between mother and child persists, despite a reunion: there is still language Chai does not know, that remains without being understood. “Dated decade by decade, time of day / by time of day. / I still do not know what / they say.”