Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: Aimee Nezhukumatathil's Lucky Fish

(Photo Credit: aimeenez.net)
I have read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first two books, Miracle Fruit (2003) and At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), both from Tupelo Press, in one sitting. However, it took me nearly two months to finish her latest full-length collection Lucky Fish. (2011, Tupelo). This was due to the fact that I am in my last semester of my MFA and I have been frantically working on my thesis. But personal circumstances aside, I am now glad I took my time.

I’m not the kind of person that likes to compare a poet’s new work to her past (wow I’m bad at this review thing), because I think everyone writes from whatever self they are at that time. That said, if you are fan of Nezhukmatathil, you’ll enjoy this book. The difference with Lucky Fish is merely the passage of time; the poet is a new person with new experiences that inform this collection, particularly the last section that includes a series of poems about pregnancy, breastfeeding, motherhood and parenting. What remains constant is Nezhukmatathil’s ability to create world that is simultaneously filled with the mundane and magical.

Comprised of three sections, the first sets out with a wandering spirit, traveling the globe. Nez tells us that “The Globe Is Just An Asterisk,” which is both the section title and the first poem of the book. The last line serves as a springboard for the poems that follow; “I will always find a way to dig.” And dig she does, and we dig along with her. Dig up stories from India and the Philippines. Dig up animals from earth, sky and sea. Dig our forks deep into a berry pie, its “buttery crust.” The section ends with the speaker eating the soil of New York, Arizona, Florida and Ohio. Dig in.

In the second section we dig through time, into adolescence, recalling deeply the pain of childhood, of being different. We witness fruit trees being stolen and the school mascot finally gets a chance to speak. Even with all the narrative poems, Nezhukumatathil still infuses this collection with lyricism like her poem “Reptilian’s Lament” that begins:

Too cold.
Too tongue.
Too bug-eyed.
Too gill.

Throughout the book we encounter many forms, including a number of list poems. My favorite, “How to Be A Poet,” lists five words, “Breath / Spiders / Boxes / Eyeliner / Thirst,” where the meat of the poem lies in the five endnotes. These structure experiments energize the paintings of these poems, which are mostly written in couplets or triplets. Also in the second section, we see Nezhukmatathil dig into a political poem with “Dear Betty Brown,” shaming the Congresswoman for asking a Chinese man to consider changing his name to something that is simpler for her to pronounce.

If I didn’t change my name for my husband,
I’m certainly not going to change it for you.

Damn straight, Ms. Nezhukumatathil. Damn straight.

In an interview on The Rumpus, Nezhukumatathil states that about one-third of the work in this book was written before she became a mother. This fact doesn’t make the books final section, "Lucky Penny" – which is mostly about becoming a parent – seem out of place. Nezhukumatathil has consistently written about people: parents, siblings, friends, lovers, fiancé, husband – and now sons.

Perhaps the most powerful poem is the longest of the section entitled “Birth Geographic” and subtitled “an auto-bio poem sequence.” The poem, written in eighteen sections, begins, “When you give birth, there is no map” and from there on the shape and content grapple with trying to find order in a chaotic, emotional experience. Nezhukumatathil weaves together stories of her parents' births, folklore, bowerbirds, even directions, in between the narrative of giving birth to her son. While she makes it clear that the personal stories of her poems are never held to any truth standard (though the science in her work is always based in fact) this poems brings with it the truth of experience, abandon, manic struggle, elation and fear. I was left breathless.

As someone who loves holding a book, enjoys the feel of paper and glossy covers, I must say that Tupelo continues to make beautiful books. The cover art for this collection, entitled “Mermaid Tail” by Ellen Yeast, an extreme close up of the tail end of a rainbow-colored fish, is lovely in its simple elegance. It is the perfect visual companion to the colorful, flavorful, textured world with which Nezhukumatathil remains fascinated. In fact, that is perhaps what I love most about Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poetry: she is filled with a childlike playfulness and wonder with the natural world, entranced by its magic and her poems always share that magic with us.

While speaking at AWP about “How a Poem Happens” Nezhukumatathil told the audience to always have a variety of books on your desk; her desk currently held books about seashells and pirates. Everything can go into poems, whether it is the history of the paper, Thanksgiving dinner, Michael Jackson’s former pet monkey Bubbles, or a lucky penny. These people, places and things are all there and Nezhukumatathil is a master at layering details and narratives, braiding together multiple stories or images, and then returning, renewed. After reading her books, I love to go back and sift through the poem-layers, digging through the pages. Her poems make us all “find a way to dig.”

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Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil was published by Tupelo Press in 2011.
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