Eleanor Chai

FSG, 2016

Standing Water’s greatest achievement is Eleanor Chai’s wise sequencing, a prism that refracts a unified idea: disassociation, “carrying the believer to // divided realms of experience, some distance from what compels it.” Meditations like this, within theatrical narratives peopled by the poet’s mother or the Kabuki dancer Hanako, vamp and reprise themes of mind-body duality.

The title poem places Chai’s speaker and her father in a museum, as they encounter Rodin’s bronze of Hanako (a ghostly “totem” gliding throughout). This confrontation spurs a revelation:

When my Native Mother was pregnant
with me, he intended to interrupt her pregnancy

Disrupt the (my) growth
to save her (or them or us)
from one more spell of postpartum
sadness-unto-savagery —

Too ill for an abortion, the speaker’s mother gave birth by default. The book attempts—and, powerfully, fails—to quiet the notion of not-being, of the halt of developing life. Ironically, Standing Water introduces a voice striking for its development and consistency, though, at times, with a cadence so closely echoing Bidart’s it is nearly pastiche.

Within the book’s narrative arc, Chai enfolds thinking on parasitic bacteria that “thrive, living off the living / to survive…,” and an opera misheard: “I can’t hear the difference between cours and coeur, so when she begs / Stop this rage, this suffering, this war — I hear: I beg of you, stop this heart…” Each detour parallels the poet’s estrangement from her body, powerless audience to her own birth: “I never asked to be saved from what I could not imagine. / My imagination is ever late to find the means it needs.” In fact, it so thoroughly exhausts this idea that the following poems risk redundancy, encircling, buzzard-like, the same target.

Her dying mother, in an insulin coma, provokes the final reflection:

Do we cease with you? Do we die with your are and still
am and is? Will we derange by tones of tense as in was
and wasn’t she waiting all this time, impossibly surviving

the decades it took to reunite?

Chai reminds us that our bodies are not our own — host for cholera, for lovers, for children. Neither is the shared grammar we use to define their boundaries. Since the final sequence shows, however, a daughter at her mother’s side, these attachments do not always push us further from ourselves. The same tools that broke us up can also mend.