Stephanie Niu’s chapbook, She Has Dreamt Again of Water (Diode Editions, 2022), conjures both a dreamer’s perspective and longing for freedom, as well as a clear-eyed understanding of how it can be restricted. She searches for some balance between nourishing other people and relationships, and self-preservation. No answer to that question could be straightforward, and Niu’s thoughtful exploration of it ensures its emotional dimensions remain intact.
The first two poems of the collection (following a mythic sort of prologue) immediately set up some essential themes, with the motif of water carrying particular weight. “Water Dreams” pulls the central mother-daughter connection in and out of focus, like a tide. “Her relief that I can conjure, / even in sleep, what she cannot give me—good rest, / good luck, an ocean to dream in.” This care, as well as the discomfort of it at times, is evident throughout the chapbook, with the speaker frequently drawn in and away from the mother’s gravity. “She is always in motion, urgent for something / she cannot name.”
Both qualities of the relationship become more apparent in “Midden / Appetite,” the first of many poems that center less around water and more around themes of food and, more significantly, “trash” or “garbage,” as the mother identifies herself. These more potent metaphors reappear throughout the poems. Love is intertwined in what is consumed, as when the speaker notes the mother “eats what we won’t,” despite her complaint that “no one wants to be garbage.” Later, the mother wishes, “If someone loved me more, / maybe I wouldn’t gain weight.”
Finding a connection between the mystic ocean themes and the more mundane question of nourishment, Niu draws a sketch of a dead whale’s remains becoming an “ecosystem,” contradicting her mother’s wish not to “become food”—illustrating a fear that love means being consumed. What power do we have, or do we not have, to choose to linger in the lives of others? To sustain our loved ones in whatever way they may need?
In the next poem, “Garbage Boogie,” the speaker notes that she has “trash guilt” and will “discard what [she] can’t carry”—a stark contrast. More crucially, she believes that “the system / can’t need us to be superhuman” as she watches “the ways we still overflow / with hunger, so much hunger / with nowhere to go.” It doesn’t feel quite like a judgment on the mother, but perhaps a rejection of that model for herself after witnessing the wear on her bones.
Later, in “Before Desire,” the speaker makes this conflict a bit clearer. She uses the metaphor of pelicans filling their mouths with fish, accepting that “our way of being in the world / was the only one we wanted,” knowing that “we had no dreams.” The reader can’t help but think of the collection’s title, however, and the speaker’s insistence on dreaming, even if it’s almost apologetic.
In later poems, the speaker’s father appears to be the opposite, somehow: struggling to find the right way to nourish those in his care, misfeeding parakeets who don’t know to “keep their bellies full” like chickens do—an apparent metaphor for himself. In the next poem, however, the speaker reconsiders, noting that “he has learned to fly,” thoughtfully providing her two pears for travel; they have the “sharp crunch of water” and nourish her more fully, while being more acceptable on a plane than liquids.
The narrative of her father is clearer than that of the mother, perhaps. But maybe painting such a clear portrait of each of them is enough.
Through the three parts of “Diver Walks into the Sea and Stays,” the speaker finally creates a narrative for herself, slowly “learn[ing] to clear [her] ears,” and then beginning to explore, finding “everything […] worthy of devotion.” She concludes, “I need / nothing. I survive” in the image of an angler fish. Then, in the collection’s titular poem, she longs for exile, for the moon (“What better home / for her lonely body than another lonely, / celestial body?”)
One of the chapbook’s highlights, “Migration,” carries the reader from that longing and exploration into the collection’s final quiet moments. The poem is a sestina, using the end-words of each line to pull together many thematic elements and details that have flowed like driftwood through the collection, like “mother” and “free” and “swell.”
In one stanza, the speaker’s mother seems to accept her “early desire to be free,” at which the mother “swell[s]/with pride;” later, that acceptance is reciprocated, when the speaker realizes, “I wish I could say what I needed to be free/from, what thing. Not any particular, even my mother.” She promises to “show [her] mother the swells” of the ocean someday.
Clear, cleansing prose runs through these poems like a river. They are not simple or transparent, yet the reader’s mind doesn’t stumble over the words. They are musical, but also purer than that, spoken with a clear throat yet an exploring mind. The language invites us to spend time with it, inside of it, like opening our eyes underwater and examining an unknown landscape. The vision is sharp, translucent.
Much of this language is used to create the ethereal atmosphere of many poems, a similar magic to the title. At other times, though, it finds other purposes, even play. “Garbage boogie,” for instance, is aptly named after its musical qualities: “the sound of hollow boxes” dancing with “and old bottles of booze / lulls me, confused, into its groove”; “culpable” ricocheting off of “compost” and “recyclables”—all this just in the first few moments of the poem.
Although the ocean metaphors were unsurprising, I didn’t anticipate the themes centered around food and remains. At times, there is emptiness and hunger, while at others, fullness and the act of consuming. There is a clear contrast in these themes, the mysticism of water and the practical care of feeding. Yet, moments of connection are scattered throughout, such as the whale’s corpse becoming sustenance. In other cases, food and water act as both sources of life and nourishment (literal food, and metaphorical spiritual freedom of the ocean) as well as, perhaps, suffocation (consumed and being consumed; dreams being put to rest).
The final poem, “I Drive As My Family Sleeps,” offers some resolution of these themes. The images of this poem are quiet, nearly still, except for the lullaby hum of the road beneath the words. Something intangible lingers there, in the space this family creates for each other. “But for now, /this quiet mile is the only thing on earth that is ours.”
Laurel Elizabeth is a writing tutor and success coach for Kennebec Valley Community College’s TRIO program, where she recently earned an associate degree in liberal arts. Additionally, she is a graduate of Vassar College’s Exploring Transfer summer program, and aims to begin a BA in English this fall. An emerging writer and aspiring English teacher, she has a special interest in the role of creative empowerment in education.