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.