Book Review: Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Before moving to California, I spent most of my life in the overcrowded, fast-paced, industrial city of Mumbai. While we lived not far from a small public garden, the closest I ever got to witnessing nature was by observing our pet goldfish in action. There was also one occasion in the fourth grade when we were asked to plant wheat grains in a plastic cup and document the grass’s growth over the course of a fortnight. Holding a copy of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s fourth publication, Oceanica collection that is teeming with wonder and reverence for the natural world—felt like bringing a luscious piece of the world outside closer to me. I was thrilled to watch it flower poem after poem, image after image.

Guided by the spirit of pure curiosity, each poem in Oceanic captures the poet’s profound respect for beauty as she examines our connection to the world in which we live. Nezhukumatathil asks readers to withdraw their attention from the vertical expanse of their everyday horizon and focus instead on the magic and mystery down below. In her poem, “Invitation,” it is as if the water itself is patiently waiting for us to acknowledge its presence:

Deep where imperial volutes and hatchetfish live, colors humans have
not yet named glow in caves made from black coral and clamshell

With the power of many such rich, detailed images, she draws us effortlessly into her many ideas of natural beauty.

While the book’s title may suggest a deep dive into the aquatic universe, Nezhukumatathil’s conceptualization of nature is much more complex, surreal, and humbling. Within the poem’s setting, her subject is truly, “boundless, limitless—like all/the shades of blue revealed in a glacier.” Nature for her, I imagine, is an infinite well from which she keeps drawing inspiration for poems. She acknowledges this by saying, “So many lessons bubble up if you just know/where to look.” Nezhukumatathil’s poetic glance takes us on a journey from creature to creature and continent to continent. She takes us from pelicans in Florida to the Pumpkin Festival in New York, from grieving elephants in India’s Periyar National Park to a funicular in Switzerland. She constantly redefines the boundaries of what we usually consider nature. ‘Come in, come in – the water’s fine! You can’t get lost here,” she reassures us. Rather than being limited by the conventional dimensions of plant and animal life, we are treated to images as diverse as C-section Scars, an aubade to cutlery and accounts of four people who have plunged intentionally over the Niagara Falls. “Invitation” concludes with the speaker’s gentle command, “Lets listen/how this planet hums with so much wing, fur, and fin,” which sets the ideal tone to communicate the value of the collection’s subject matter.

 In “One-Star Reviews of the Taj Mahal,” one of the found poems in the collection, we find tourists complaining, “There was no cloakroom at the South Gate!” and, “Can you believe this tomb has no rides?,” which cause us to question our own human expectations of beauty. Equal parts funny and saddening, the “One-Star” series of poems serve to establish the poet’s identity and unique perspective as a brown girl growing up in America. The speaker logs how the visitors react:

We were ripped off by asking local shopkeepers to hold our bags for us

As a stand-alone attraction I guess it’s passable/but compared to the McDonald’s at Celebration Mall/it’s just meh

No one can speak English!

In all the above reviews, the speaker reveals how a Westerner reacts to a piece of history or beauty that is not solely theirs. The poet sheds light on the compulsive American need to experience everything in “English”. It also urges us to think about the changing benchmarks or comparisons for beauty. What is and is not beautiful? How have we, as tourists, and as humans, come to the point where the experience of being inside Taj Mahal is being equated or compared with a Mc Donald’s outlet at a mall?

There are several poems in the book, which cohabitate Nezhukumatathil’s brown girl identity and her closeness to nature. In an interview with David Winter from The Journal Mag, she says, “Growing up as one of the only Asian-Americans in most of my school always set me apart, always observing. But my parents fostered a sense of being grateful and amazed and wanting to always be curious about the world and its inhabitants, so I never truly felt alone.” Her desire to be visible and acknowledged is further echoed in the poem, “In Praise of My Manicure,” which begins with the line, “Because I was taught all my life to blend in, I want/ my fingernails to blend out.” In a world that conditions brown girls to be invisible, here is a writer who unapologetically declares, “I will shape my fingers into sarpasirassu – my favorite,/ a snake – sliding down my wrist and into each finger”. More than making herself ‘just’ visible, she takes the otherwise evil and poisonous symbol of a snake and reclaims it as an instrument of power and beauty.

 Oceanic, along with free verse pieces, is also packed with several poems that demonstrate the poet’s strong hold of form. She presents us with a ghazal in “travel mommy,” a sonnet in “Naming the Heartbeats,” and haibuns in the poems, “End of Summer” and “Forsyth Avenue.” Each of these reinforces the poet’s perpetual investigations into the nature of love, motherhood, and daughterhood, subjects she has explored in her previous books too. Her poems often start off with a musical construction which gives us a feeling of whimsical playfulness. She then cleverly uses this lightness to gently deliver us to her more serious and somber inquiries in the ends of poems. Consider these final four lines from “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth”:

Too many sunbeams spoil the moss.
Too many kisses spoil the jaw.
Too many wolves spoil the flock.
Too many necks spoil the block.

As we alternate between the softness of kisses and harshness of wolves, the repetition leads us to believe this is a playful tongue twister until we arrive at the final line with its gentle, cautionary message. And we are turned towards the social and political implications of living on a block with ‘too many necks’. While discussing her craft in her interview with Winters, Nezhukumatathil explains, “The first line of the poem should hook just under your skin to keep you wanting, really wanting, to read on. The last line should feel as if the hook were either yanked out or gently removed. Either way, it should smart.”

As careful as they are in their construction of music and narrative, the poems in Oceanic also show us how lineation and placement can enhance the visual pleasure of poems. In “Self Portrait as Scallop,” the collection’s opener, phrases are lineated and separated by generous spaces to create the effect of a gently moving wave, as if we are swimming along with the scallop as we read:

       if you were hungry enough – the small hinge
                     of my umbo          would creak and sigh.

 The text of this poem, in which the speaker imagines herself a scallop with “my hundred blue eyes,” flows on the page much like the body of a swimming scallop—in that, in one moment, we see an opening widen and, in another moment, it jumps as it makes us travel from image to image, making us journey from the speaker’s youth to present.

 Throughout the book, I felt my senses being blessed with lush imagery in lines like, “blush green current of auroras” and, “a school of blue jack mackerel arranging itself into an orb of dazzle.” At the same time, Nezhukumatathil does not shy away from bringing us face to face with the many horrors that surround the world in which we breathe. We often corrupt beauty, she seems to say while dealing with extinction, as seen in the lines, “the bottle caps found inside a baby albatross/can make a tiny ribcage whistle,” or we are otherwise compelled to beautify the known corruptions we live in, as seen in “Two Moths,” a poem about child prostitution, in which an elder sister applies kohl under her 12-year-old sister’s eyes “until it looks like two popinjay moths/ have stopped to rest on her exquisite face.” The writer here is adept at locking in the shocks that surround us and she does so with measured and tender grace.

What does it mean then to continue loving in and loving a natural world that is perennially at risk of disappearing or destruction? To answer this, the speaker in “Sea Church” creates a love song to nature, stating that she never wants to imagine a world where her sense of wonder and sensuous excitement cease to exist. She sings:

Never let me see
the dolphins leaping
into commas

for this waterprayer
rising like a host
of paper lanterns
in the inky evening.

Let them hang
in the sky until
they vanish at the edge
of the constellations –
the heroes and animals
too busy and bright to notice.

 Her amazement and bewilderment at our environment is so playful and accessible it makes you want to fall in love with the unknowns of nature again and again. Halfway through my reading of Oceanic, I felt compelled to walk to Golden Gate Park on a sunny day so that I could lie on the grass and properly devour each poem—slowly, as if it were the last piece of my favorite dessert. In the poem In Praise of My Manicure, she writes

A snake heart can slide up and down the length of its body
when it needs to. You’ll never be able to catch my pulse, my shine.  

It is as if the snake’s heart resides in the heart of Nezhukumatathil’s craft. She knows how to walk the reader through a wilderness of curiosities and concerns, leaving us asking for more at the brink of wonder.

 


Aimee Nezhukumatathil is Professor of English at State University of New York-Fredonia, where she teaches creative writing and environmental literature. Recent honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pushcart Prize. She is the author of three poetry collections: Lucky Fish (2011), winner of the gold medal in Poetry from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize for Independent Books; At The Drive-in Volcano (2007), winner of the Balcones Prize; and Miracle Fruit (2003), winner of the Tupelo Press Prize, ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the Global Filipino Award and a finalist for The Glasgow Prize and the Asian American Literary Award.  Her most recent chapbook is Lace & Pyrite, a collaboration of nature poems with the poet Ross Gay.


Preeti Vangani is an MFA (Writing) candidate at University of San Francisco. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in BOAAT, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Juked, Lines+Stars and Knicknackery among others. She’s a spoken word poet and has been a featured performer at several San Francisco events including Voz Sin Tinta and Kearny Street Workshop. She is the winner of the RL(India) Poetry Prize 2017 and has a book forthcoming in 2019. More of her work can be read here.


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