How to Listen to Water
May 16, 2018
This season, SAL’s friends at Poetry Northwest are partnering with us to present reflections on visiting writers from our Poetry Series. Below, Michelle Peñaloza reviews Oceanic, the collection by Aimee Nezhukumatathil that Michelle calls “her best yet.”
Aimee Nezhukumatathil will read at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 21 at McCaw Hall to close out our 2017/18 Poetry Series. Tickets are still available!
By Michelle Peñaloza
Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s latest poetry collection, Oceanic, entices its readers to be “those who are willing to collect urchin and pearl.” Nezhukumatathil herself is a collector and curator of observations, facts, and wonder throughout her body of work. Nezhukumatathil has a keen appreciation and exuberance for both the natural world—her poems are full of scientific, biological facts, lush and quirky observations of such things like the history of the color of red, peacocks, bioluminescence, and jacaranda blooms—and the domestic (poems about pie and parenting and gardening and the suburbs). Nezhukumatathil is what some might call an “approachable poet.” Her diction is often straightforward and her subjects easily perceived. These are poems concerned with familial life and memory, multicultural identity, friendship, love, motherhood, and growing up. Her poems are often lyrical and narrative, sometimes hybrids of both. You might buy your non-poet mom an Aimee Nezhukumatathil collection and she might actually read and enjoy it.
Depending on taste and temperament, the descriptors “approachable” or “accessible” in The Poetry World can be jibes, (see the various praise/outrage around the phenomenon and commercial success of Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur). One could see how some curmudgeons might find Nezhukumatathil’s “accessibility” and subject matters all too earnest; however, I’d say: those people just need to get their lives right. Or, simply read Nezhukumatathil’s work closely. The craft of her approach—her surprising diction, the music of her lines, her playfulness with language, her facility with a variety of modes and traditions, her frolicsome description and rhetoric—invites her readers to enjoy and believe her work’s sincerity, sincerely. Or, maybe another way to say it: once, after a reading by Nezhukumatathil, a dear friend and fellow poet, whose opinions I hold in high esteem and who is curmudgeonly as hell, said, “Ayeeeee, those poems were tender as f*ck!”—a compliment I took as the highest praise. There is so much of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic I would classify as “tender as f*ck,” and I find myself in need of tenderness and accessibility these days.
Oceanic is Nezhukumatathil’s fourth full-length poetry collection and her best yet—one that demonstrates her mastery of sensory detail, prowess at synthesizing memories with insight, and her observations and impressive knowledge of the natural world. The book’s first poem, “Self-Portrait as Scallop,” begins the collection as a declaration of maturity:
Carry me in the gobble of your beak.
I’d rather be set like a jewel in your nest
a sweet surprise after the sun dissolves
into the Pacific like a gold ghost
sugaring my coffee. By then I will have
opened up to you. None of the eelgrass stories
I clung to in my youth are better than
this: I’m no longer silent. None of them told me
if you were hungry enough—the small hinge
of my umbo would creak and sigh.
The open syntax of the poem makes the reader takes her time. The enjambment works across the line and down the page to create a tension that complements the poem’s (and the whole collection’s) assertion of the poet’s wisdom, dedication to openness, and continued hunger to collect and learn. (Also, when have you read a poem in which the word “umbo” makes such a seamless appearance?)
The whole of Oceanic reads like a favorite record you put on and lie on the rug to listen to; you relish the whole experience, but you sit up and rest on your elbows when your favorite tracks strike up. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Mr. Cass and the Crustaceans,” plays like an origin story and analogy for the whole collection. (The poem title would also be a great band name—perhaps one the Cephalopod Appreciation Society would also appreciate). It begins, as many of Nezhukumatathil’s poems do, with stark image and fact and invitation:
Whales the color of milk have washed ashore
in Germany, their stomachs clogged full
of plastic and car parts. Image the splendor
of a creature as big as half a football field—
the magnificence of the largest brain
of any animal—modern or extinct. I have
been trying to locate my fourth grade
science teacher for years. Mr. Cass, who
gave us each a crawfish he found just past
the suburbs of Phoenix, before strip mall
slicked every good desert with a cold blast
of Freon and glass. Mr. Cass who played
soccer with us at recess, who let me check
on my wily, snappy crawfish in the plastic
blue poll before class so I could place
my face to the surface of the water and see
if it still skittered alive. I hate to admit
how much this meant to me, the only brown girl
in the classroom. How I wish I could tell Mr. Cass
how I’ve never stopped checking the waters—
the ponds, the lakes, the sea. And I worry
that I’ve yet to see a sperm whale, except when
they beach themselves in coves. How many songs
must we hear from the sun-bleached bones
of a seabird or whale? If there was anyone on earth
who would know this, Mr. Cass, it’s you—how even
bottle caps found inside a baby albatross corpse
can make a tiny ribcage whistle when the ocean wind
blows through it just right—I know wherever you are,
you’d weep if you heard this sad music. I think
how you first taught us kids how to listen to water,
and I’m grateful for each story in its song.
Click here to read more of Michelle’s essay.