Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Copper Canyon Press, 2018. 73 pp.
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
Did you know the umbo is the knobby prominent bump on the shell of a bivalve?
Or that the aromatic terpene linalool, which occurs in many flowers and herbs like tangerine, spearmint, cypress, and cinnamon, is also the molecule in pepper that causes dogs and humans to sneeze?
Anjali is when the hands fold together in greeting; those same hands might have a bright manicured swirl in the shape of a pallavam. And surfaces, as they age and dry, might acquire fine networks of cracked patterns called craquelure, which in themselves could be considered beautiful.
What poet can so confidently and beguilingly slide words like these into lines?
What poet in recent times manages to speak not only of the urgent business of a world under severe environmental threat, but also gently reminds us that there are yet pleasures that we might find in it, as well as in language? That poet would be Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
Nezhukumatathil was named in 2015 as poetry editor of Orion, the preeminent magazine of nature and environmental writing. Orion’s first Editor-in-Chief, George Russell, wrote of the publication’s vision in 1982: “It is Orion’s fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.”
In Oceanic, her fifth single-authored book of poetry, Aimee Nezhkumatathil writes of human, animal, and other interactions in ways that demonstrate the Horatian values of “dulce et utile” (sweetness/pleasure and utility). Or perhaps, more accurately, these poems make a most convincing case for how such values need not—should not— be split into such a binary.
The best poems in this book, which a PBS feature described as her “love letters to the outdoors,” never just include mentions of the natural world as embellishment or backdrop. Neither do human experiences serve merely as captions or slogans for biodiversity or sustainability. Rather, she shows how inextricably involved everything is: oceans, born only once every billion years and from whose kelpy layers we draw spiny oysters, clouds of plankton, the wealth of “squid with ten empty arms,” are only one of the depths in which we live and must sustain each other in order to survive—
…I hope you see
the dark sky as oceanic, boundless, limitless— like all
the shades of blue revealed in a glacier. Let’s listen
how this planet hums with so much wing, fur, and fin.
Of course it’s harder to imagine, much less enact, such a politics and poetics of more generous embrace. It seems easier to dismiss, not care, write off, withhold. It seems easier to complain and demand, like tourists whose overdetermined sense of privilege eclipses the possibility of being struck by discovery and surprise:
It’s just an old love story.
Can you believe this tomb has no rides?”
~ “One-Star Reviews of the Taj Mahal”
This is not an experience of a lifetime.
No one can speak English.
Too much fog.
Too much rain.
It’s just a wall.
~ “One-Star Reviews of the Great Wall of China”
Cynicism and cruelty can be learned early, as demonstrated by the school children who turn around as one at the lead of the teacher who “butchers [her] name like// he has a bloody sausage casing stuck/ between his teeth.” Despite her embarrassment at their scrutiny, this is how she tells herself to imagine them:
…try not to forget
someone once lathered their bodies, once patted them
dry with a fluffy towel after a bath, set out their clothes
for the first day of school.
In these moments of precise documentation of both the humanity and imperfection of this world, the poet also looks at herself—she can
Think of their pencil cases
from third grade, full of sharp pencils, a pink pearl eraser.
Think of their handheld pencil sharpener and its tiny blade.
~ “On Listening to your Teacher Take Attendance”
Why couldn’t we write odes and love poems full of pink and blushing and “a light bless of sweat,” or celebrate the tenderness and loyalty of male penguins standing guard over their young? Why couldn’t we still sleep under the stars even in “fields of soybean and mice?” Could we live in a world where wonder and delight aren’t passé, and where love might still change everything?
I never saw the ribs
of a silver silo that way again.
~“The Two Times I Loved You Most on a Farm”
Perhaps it isn’t too late to recover some sense of the world’s natural abundance without perpetuating the misery, poverty, and calculating greed that are such staples of our late 21st century capitalist landscape— and that have direct links to the absolutely devastating narrative at the heart of a poem like “Two Moths,” where twelve-year-olds are thrust into lives of prostitution sometimes even by kin –
One hour— One hour—
One hour. And if she cries afterward
her older sister will cover it up. Will rim
the waterline of her eyes with kohl pencil
until it looks like two popinjay moths
have stopped to rest on her exquisite face.
The poems in Oceanic propose a radical reorientation— an idea not exactly new, but ever more necessary in a world that seems closer every day to the brink of our common oblivion:
poet Virgil gave his pet fly
the most lavish funeral, complete
with meat feast and barrels
of oaky wine.
~“I Could Be a Whale Shark”
Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com