Standing Water by Eleanor Chai

Reviewed by Charlie Baylis

” Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”

Today, mother is dead; or so confessed Meursault as Albert Camus paved a path through the existential morning fog of The Outsider. So what does Camus have in common with Eleanor Chai, a fresh and exciting young poet from Westport, Connecticut? “Your mother is dead” Eleanor Chai is told at the start of the ominously titled poem: ‘The Death’. Chai may not have a great deal in common with the anti-hero of The Outsider, but her grief at her mother’s passing is the largest shadow looming over Standing Water, her excellent first collection. The reader learns early on that Chai’s mother has been taken away to a psychiatric facility. Later, when her mother breathes her last, Chai directs the pain she feels back at herself:

I thought I could do it: body you forth
create/make a formal being shapely enough

to restore you to some life, some will, some force—
[from ‘Standing Water’]

Unfortunately even a poet with powers as intense and magical as this cannot bring the dead back to life. Standing Water is a rough diamond cut with considerable elegance, each line mapped out out like a ripple between a star and a star on the surface of a lake. For example, consider the Louise-Gluck-like cadence of ‘Trust’:

This is my calm world: sesame and soy and fat golden melon—
This world is glazed celadon, blues, grays, olives and clay.
The day starts slow and early. Crickets turn to birdsong at dawn.

Pick any five nouns: I bet you can’t measure their rhythm and weighting as well as Chai does with ‘celadon, blues, grays, olives and clay.’ In these short bursts are all the tangible beauty of a promising poet opening the curtains of a new heaven. It is not only here that Chai’s touch is deft; the whole collection is gleaming with the bountiful and beautiful. Word placement hardly ever falters, even her Author’s Note at the end of the book tugs on the heartstrings:

The dedication ink painting is by the poet’s mother.
The first image is a portrait of the poet’s mother.
The last image is the last photograph of the poet’s mother.

A small flaw in Standing Water is its lack of innovation – this is not what Rimbaud demanded when he told us we must be ‘absolutely modern’. Chai’s formalism is largely taken from dead souls (there are echoes of Sappho, H.D., Anne Sexton). Though some of the timeless nature of Chai’s poetry might be compromised, her next collection would be improved if Chai loosened her metric shoelaces. A whole new dimension could be unlocked if only she spread the words around the page like a painter instead of a poet.

One final gripe I have is a tendency to over-punctuate, which is not to say the punctuation is ever wrong: it is all in the right place, the editing has been exact. In general there is just far too much punctuation in poetry, so if we are drowning in commas Chai will be first to be taken by the flood. For example:

One day, I will walk immaculate
gardens to find you, there. With offerings
for the ancient deer, I will touch your eyelids,

compare and contrast this with:

one day i will walk immaculate
gardens to find you there with offerings
for the ancient deer i will touch your eyelids

Some readers will prefer the former, others will prefer the later. However, I feel poetry has reached a point where there needs to be some form of change, and perhaps the next logical step is a step away from punctuation. Several young British poets (and I’m sure others too) have already pretty much removed it from their verse (for example see Sam Riviere, Heather Phillipson, Andrew McMillan), others are using it sparingly. It would be very interesting to see a more traditional style of poet like Eleanor Chai shedding commas, full stops, questions marks and cutting out the capital letters.

Notwithstanding this small matter of taste, Standing Water is a wonderfully rich first collection, whose words will resonate. Eleanor Chai is a poet of great promise, worth paying close attention to.