A profound literary debut that recounts a child’s singular story
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.
A young woman in Paris encounters an uncanny presence on a tour of a small museum. A study by Rodin of the dancer Little Hanako—titled Head of Sorrow—triggers in the young woman recognition of her mother, a mother erased from her life since childhood.
Thus begins Eleanor Chai’s Standing Water, one of the most remarkable first books of poetry in recent years. It is a journey into the past as well as the present—into the narrative hidden from the poet since birth, as well as the strategies that she has adopted to survive. It is a journey about how we learn to cope with, to perceive and describe, the world. It is a story about savage privilege and deprivation.
Haunting the whole is the figure of the real Little Hanako—Rodin’s model, a Japanese artist displaced in Europe, the medium through which other artists dream and discover the world.
In this raw, confessional debut, Chai confronts the specter of an absence that of her mother, who was committed to a psychiatric facility shortly after Chai's birth. In the book's devastating title poem, the poet's father reveals details of his daughter's origin and her mother's postpartum depression, and Chai recalls acts of violence from an older brother angry at their mother's departure. Chai continually laments her imagination's inability to bring her mother back: "I thought I could do it: body you forth/ create/make a formal being shapely enough/ to restore you to some life." She further laments an alienating language gap, having spoken Korean in her early childhood while living with her grandparents before returning to her father and brothers who spoke only English "the evacuation of my native tongue left me raw." Ill-equipped to deal with the evidence of her mother's mental health, she is both attracted to and repulsed by photographs that were "forebodingly strange, then utterly native." Convictions shift from this unbreachable distance: "Was she actually frightening, or was she scary/ because she was unspeakable, broken,/ fringe and the beginning of me." Chai finds some measure of peace, and though the void can never be overcome, the struggle unfurls as a beautiful catharsis haunting, suffocating, and stunningly rendered.