PF detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Beach Scene, Guernsey (Children by the Sea in Guernsey) - 1883;

ISSN 
1942-2067

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil

From "My Name"

                                          My father tells me part
of our name comes from a flower from the South Indian
coast. I wonder what it smells like, what fragrance

I have always dabbed at my neck.  Scientists say some flowers
don’t have a scent, but they do—even if it’s hints of sweat
from bloom too long without drink or the promise
of honey from the scratchings of a thin bee leg, feathered

with loosestrife and sage.  I wonder if I’ve ever smelled
our flower, if the smell ever wafted clear across the ocean.
I would swim out to meet it, brush the salt and bits
of pink shell away, apologize for the messiness of my hair.

From Miracle Fruit, Tupelo Press, ©2003

The Light She Collects:
Aimee Nezhukumatatl—Interpreter, Investigator, Historian

She considers herself a wanderer at heart.  Living in more than a half a dozen different states in her youth coupled with her Filipina-Indian-American lineage has influenced Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s writing and kept three intersecting cultures always looming over her shoulder. She believes it provides a layering and fusion of pop culture and custom, and as a poet she is able to find the perfect solution to capturing the blend of traditions when she dons the respective caps of interpreter, investigator and historian. 

One of the things Nezhukumatathil is most proud of in her work is the use of science and biology as metaphor or image for jumpstarting a poem.  She does extensive research, and feels she owes truthfulness to the reader when employing images from nature.   Accordingly, we are likely to find her digging in a pirate dictionary, shell identification guide, an oversized culinary history, or “a bird guide or three.” 

She confesses she “falls in love with words, the sound and color and flavor of words” daily.  Perhaps it is the ache  she feels to write them, to let her speech “be infused with them like herbs in delicate oil” that fuels such expressive warmth and dimension—and I suspect her love for “the grab and pull of everything you can’t name, only knowing you want more” is what  gives her writing its fresh, inventive quality. In her deft hands, a yellow bell “rings sun into the room,” a kitchen is “wrecked” with love, the soul of a man is seen as “dizzy sweetness,” a face (her own) as “a hush of paprika and burnt honey.” Her words are more than image-driven and alive; indeed each one accompanied or alone, breathes as in these lines from "Kottayam Morning:"

A hundred bats fly inside my chest.

I hear them in my lung cave
while I am still.  I want to stay in bed

a bit longer, wait until my grandmother
knocks at the door–her glass bangles

the only clink quieting what’s inside me. 

From  Lucky Fish, Tupelo Press, ©2011

Born in Chicago in the 1970’s to a Filipina mother and South Indian father, Nezhukumatathil grew up in Iowa, Kansas, Arizona, and New York before settling in Ohio.  She attended Ohio State University as both an undergraduate and graduate student, receiving her MFA before being appointed Middlebrook Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Awarded a 2009 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she has twice served as a faculty member at Kundiman retreat for Asian American writers and given readings and workshops from Amsterdam to San Francisco. Since 2001, she has been associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia, where she teaches creative writing and environmental literature, and  is the recipient of the Hagan Young Scholar Award and SUNY Chancellor’s Medal for Scholarly and Creative Activities, as well as the Nuala McGann Drescher Award.

Nezhukumatathil has earned a reputation as a dedicated and inspiring faculty member and dynamic, supportive presence to her students.  She recently completed a sabbatical work at the Georgia Aquarium, where she researched whale sharks for her forthcoming children’s book about mammals, and is currently working on a third manuscript of poems as well as a series of young-adult poems.  She makes her home in Western New York with her husband, two young sons, and geriatric dachshund, Villanelle, who she affectionately refers to as “the heartbeat at my feet.”

   

To date, she has authored three poetry collections:  Miracle Fruit (2003), winner of the Tupelo Press Prize, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in poetry and the Global Filipino Award, At the Drive-In Volcano, winner of the Balcones Prize, and most recently, Lucky Fish.  In addition, she has two chapbooks to her credit: The Feathered Cape of Kechi and Fishbone. 

Several of Nezhukumatathil’s poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, which she won in 2009 for “Love in the Orangery.” All told, her individual poems have been published in more than 150 literary journals, magazines and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Mid-America Review, and Pirene’s Fountain is delighted to showcase her talent in this month’s issue.

 

Speak

If the Hopi say “ripi”
to mean notch, then for them serration
is “ripiripiripi.”  I want
to speak like that, fill
your ears and hands
with wet stones, turquoise
and smooth, as if
they had tumbled
in the mouth of a macaw.

From Miracle Fruit, Tupelo Press, ©2003


I love how simply and beautifully this poem “speaks,” while transporting us to another time, place, culture and creates for the reader a multisensory experience with its minimal and perfectly chosen language.  In the poem below, “The Globe is Just an Asterisk…” the opening lines are so fluid and original, they immediately make an everyday object something memorable.  Most likely, we have all spun a globe, or pinched geographical areas between out thumb and forefinger for measurement,  but when, before now, have any of us viewed a globe as an asterisk?  It is more than a common object with a new image, though; Ms.Nezhukumatathil has evoked emotion and given us a sense of history, as well.

 

A GLOBE IS JUST AN ASTERISK AND
                               EVERY HOME SHOULD HAVE AN ASTERISK

Before a globe is pressed into a sphere,
the shape of the paper is an asterisk.

The planet is holding our place in line:
look out for metallic chips of meteor

hurtling through the universe.  On my drive
to work, 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,

not yet crisped and brown.  And I was hungry
to keep driving, driving all the way down

to central Florida, to my parents’ house
and into their garage, and up the pull-down stairs

in their attic to find my old globe from 1983.
I used to sit in the living room with Kenny Rogers

playing on Mom’s record player.  I spun and spun
that globe and traced my fingers along

the nubby Himalayas, the Andes—measured
with the span of my thumb and forefinger

and the bar scale that showed how many miles
per inch, I tried to pinch the widest part

of the Pacific Ocean, the distance between me
and India, me and Philippines.  The space

between the shorelines was too wide.  My hand
was always empty when it came to land , to knowing

where is home.  I dip my hands in the sea, I net
nothing but seaweed and a single dizzy smelt.

From Lucky Fish, Tupelo Press, ©2011


In her lyrical and beautifully titled poem, “Falling Thirds,” Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s  expressions of relationship  and  connectedness, both interpersonal and universal, are clearly evident.  The poem’s lines elicit a sense of joy, all while communicating a message of substance.

 

Falling Thirds

We measure our names the same.
Across the world, when children
call out for a friend, their mother,

their favorite white goat—they have
the same intonation, the same fall
and litlt to their voice, no matter

their language;  Jahh-ee!  Mah-ma!
Pehh-dro!  My music teacher friend says
this is falling thirds:  this is proof we spoke

the same language before Babel, that maybe
a tower did fall into rock and dust, gliding
our tongues slicker past any understanding.

We speak little wants, call little kisses
into our ears across beanfields, sand,
saltwater.  Still, we sing the same songs.

From Miracle Fruit, Tupelo Press, ©2003


There is such a sense of exhilaration in “Coco Cay”…We feel the adventure, the fear, the very movement of both human life and sea life, captured in vibrant language from beginning to sensual end.

 

Coco Cay

At Coco Cay, I snorkel
                 close to the buoys
                                  that mark where They
                 are not responsible for you
anymore & find myself
                 in school of blue and gold
                                  skipjack fish.  Nothing but
                 luminous fishcolor, small bits
of ocean.  The skipjacks
                 surround me, don’t budge
                                  unless I kick flippers.  Would
                 they be brave enough
to kiss me (they are known
                 as kissing fish, pressing
                                  their swollen blue lips
                 to each other, a wall
of clams, aquarium glass)?
                 A kite-shaped shadow
                                  flies into focus a couple
                 of yards away.  Easy
to recognize the ray’s slide,
                 the undulation of wing
over a helpless line
                 of shrimp.  Panic.  I flipper
my way back till I’m within
                 shouting distance of shore.
                                  Tiny red seahorses glide in
                 & out of the coral shrubs.
I want to curl
                 its ribbed tail around
                                  my finger, a mermaid’s ring.
                 The next time I press my hand
on my lover, he would feel
                 the gallop.  The cavalry is here.
                                  Every neigh & wild whip of hair.


From Miracle Fruit, Tupelo Press, ©2003


How poignant this next poem is, and what a wonderful image Ms.Nezhukumatathil has created of her “turtle friend.” There is warmth on several levels in this lovely piece; besides the inviting atmosphere and flakey pie, there is a heaping serving of heart.

 

Pie Plate

For Patrick Rosal

A housewarming gift from my turtle friend—
a guy who has no home himself:  caries
all his possessions on his back.  Can slip
into the sea or sun himself on the beach

whenever he pleases.  He gave me this
red shell—inverted, it’s a drum—
the tink-tink-tink of cold ceramic and my spoon
like a calling for dinner, and especially, what comes

after.  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 that turtle to put down

his pack tonight and join me at the table.
I promise him here and now that the next pie
made from this plate will pipe hot steamsongs.
Let the grace of my hands form a crust

so flakey and fine, he’ll forget his burden,
his heavy step.  He won’t remember whether
or not he had seconds.  Only the curve
of his spoon, the simple lattice of berries.


From Lucky Fish, Tupelo Press, ©2011


Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s use of personification in “Eclipse” lends such beauty and meaning, from “moon-faced” eel skin surface to “wet croak and sizzle” and planted garden, she skillfully captures our imaginations and provides for the reader images so stunning, they make the universe smile.

 

Eclipse

She’s been warned not to sleep with moonlight
On her face or she will be taken from her house.

She wears eel-skin to protect herself.  She tilts
her face to the night sky when no one is looking.
During the eclipse, eels bubble in their dark

And secret caves.  Toads frenzy in pastures
just outside of town, surround the dumb cows

in a wet mess of croak and sizzle.  Years later,
she would touch the hand of a green-eyed man
by the weird light.  Because of him, she plants

a moon garden:  freesia, snowdrops, fothergilla,
bugbane.  She is a runner-bean, stretching best

and brilliant in this light.  Their child is moon-faced.
She is crazy about them.  She is lunatic.  She
is taken.  She is a hymn book flipped open.


From Lucky Fish, Tupelo Press, © 2011


In Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s writing I am most struck by her ability to infuse language with life and breath, of connectedness, of a sense of wonder.  One reviewer has said she “polishes her lines like lucky pennies”…Yes, lucky pennies, Lucky Fish, lucky readers, to be sure.


Lark VernonTimmons,
April 2011.

Click to read the interview with Aimee Nezhukumatathil


Pirene’s Fountain
thanks Ms.Nezhukumatathil for sharing her time and expressions of sensuality, beauty, playfulness and humanity.  How fortunate we are to experience her distinctive poetic voice and unique ability to freshen our perspectives.  Poems reprinted by permission of the author.