From pie to octopi, Nezhukumatathil’s collection Lucky Fish (Tupelo, 2011) brims with a palpable, abiding wonder that urges us to smell the fruit bubbling from the buttery crust, dig our fingers into the earth, roll an eel stone in our palm, and refuse to let mosquitoes turn us away from the stars.
In “Pie Plate,” a red ceramic pie plate gifted by a nomadic friend inspires her:
[...] I love the promise of buttery crust and scoop
of fruit. I love what it smells like: home. Some
believe the turtle carries the whole weight
of the world. I want the turtle to put down
his pack tonight and join me at the table.
We glimpse the early blossoming of her wonder in “The Secret of Soil”:
The secret of soil is that it is alive--
a step in the forest means
you are carried on the back
of a thousand bugs. The secret
I give you is on page forty-two
of my old encyclopedia set.
I cut out all the pictures of minerals
and gemstones. I could not take
their beauty, could not swallow
that such stones live deep inside
the earth. I wanted to tape them
to my hands and wrists [...]
As I imagined the parents who nurtured her with her scissors and her digging, her father appeared in “Mosquitoes,” beckoning her to peer into a telescope.
[...] How I can’t go to school with bites all over
my face anymore, Dad. Now---I hardly
ever say no. He has plans to go star-gazing
with his grandson and for once, I don’t protest.
He has plans. I know one day he won’t ask me,
won’t be there to show me the rings of Saturn
glowing gold through the eyepiece. [...]
The attention and affection with which Nezhukumatathil engages the world persists wherever she travels. One of her writing practices is to keep an image journal that she likens to a commonplace book of earlier times (flyway interview). In “Kottayam Morning,” set in Kerala, India, her artfulness with image sparkles:
Four mornings here and each one
rings out with funeral and honk ::
green parrot and slender goat :: a clay dish
full of ghee. Saris tongue the wind,
trying to taste my grandmother’s
cinnamon plants and leafhopper wing.
Her metaphor for her disquietude amid this dazzling and dizzying environment? “A hundred bats fly inside my chest. // I hear them in my lung cave / when I am still.”
An equally vivid metaphor delighted me in “A Globe Is Just an Asterisk and Every Home Should Have an Asterisk”: “I saw my neighbor’s lawn boiling // over with birds. Like the yard was a giant lasagna / and the birds were the perfectly bubbled cheese [...]”
Although her earlier collections, Miracle Fruit and At the Drive-in Volcano, glitter with wonder too, there is another attention alongside it here, a harder kind of wonder, a seeing and naming of things some would rather ignore.
Her poems about her newborn son and his birth convey fear and fierceness along with gratitude and awareness of her family’s place in the interdependent web. From “Toy Universe”...
There are stars that smell like licorice
and there are stars some children cannot see
because they are piecing together toy trains
and race cars and buses for my child. In the next
universe, let every moon cluster spin each child
a turn on a soda fountain stool [...]
And from “Birth Geographic”...
[...] let it be known that I will never leave you on my own accord. Never. If
someone takes me, I will scratch and bite until I gargle soil. My mouth will be
an angry mouth if anyone rips me from you. The center of my hands boiled
with blossoms when we made a family. I would never flee that garden. I swear
to you here and now: If I ever go missing, know that I am trying to come
“Becoming a mom,” Nezhukumatathil revealed in an interview with Lantern Review, “has brought my heartbeat closer to the surface of my skin.” Perhaps this is one reason Lucky Fish reflects such a wide emotional range amid this familiar landscape of wonder.
Nezhukumatathil’s invention extends from her images and metaphors to her form, which includes playful uses of punctuation and lineation. There are no haibuns as there were in At the Drive-in Volcano. Instead various hybrids of list poems abound - even one with footnotes (“How to be a Poet”).
Introduce students to these poems for their joyfulness, for what they illustrate about close observation captured in the surprising image and the precise word, for the way they integrate mythology and science, and for the inventiveness they demonstrate with form. There’s also a reader’s companion for Lucky Fish available from Tupelo that might spark more ideas.
When asked how her poems happen, she answered “it always starts with an image or word that just sounds really beautiful in your mouth” (flyway interview), so whether you bring these poems into your living room or your classroom, remember to read them aloud - more than once.