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A Review

Sowing Miracle Seeds in Poetry
Poems by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
WINNER OF THE TUPELO PRESS JUDGE’S PRIZE IN POETRY 2003

MIRACLE FRUIT feels like it was written on silk or linen or even hemp, something that absorbs deeply, and the inks she used must have been grass green, indigo, ochre. The poet says,

If your man doesn’t know cumin
from cardamom, it’s time
   to let him go.
But if he discovers a wetted
   paintbrush dipped
into turmeric makes a soft
   yellow line
on your back....then
   keep him....”

from SPICES Coloring 68

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is Filipino and Indian, born in Chicago. Her multi-cultural background informs her poems with colors and texture; her language is open, playful and killingly accurate. Her poems cast not a net but a spell, and I was under it from the first parchment page to the last salvo.

It is like parallel lines meeting, creating a new dimension—performed so simply with an inner zoom lens, so to speak, for what is before her and what has stayed alive within her from
the past.

Ms. Nezhukumatathil is so connected to what she observes that when she says something reminding us there is an observer here too, it’s surprising and completely appropriate. She moves so deeply into what she sees that she finds the underlying energy of the object, its vitality and radiance, and she is not separated from it. It is like parallel lines meeting, creating a new dimension—performed so simply with an inner zoom lens, so to speak, for what is before her and what has stayed alive within her from the past. She recalls an elephant ride near Ooty Lake, where she spots a tiger

with toes spread into the shoreline, one tooth curling
     over his lip
like a joke no one forgets. In eighth grade,
     I asked a boy to dance
who said I’m not feeling that wild right now . . .

from OOTY LAKE 5

In a cherry orchard where her "fingers ran...red from the fruitwounds of cherries," (THE WOMAN WHO TURNED DOWN A DATE FROM A CHERRY FARMER, 14) she wounds a young man by turning down his sweet advances. At Chowpatty Beach, “everyone looks only into (her) eyes” and all the unblinking eyes of the yogis buried up to their necks in the sand become the peacock feather she wanted to tape to her jeans back in Ohio. (PEACOCKS, 8)

I love the "jelly tongues" of coquina clams (COCOA BEACH, OFF SEASON 48) and the stingray's "slide/ the undulation of wing/ over a helpless line of shrimp." What she has seen stays with her and sometimes moves on.

Tiny red seahorses glide in
& out of the coral shrubs.
I want one 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 COCO CAY 51

The physical absence
of a thing or of a person is for her a medium
to a deeper and very beautiful reality.

Nezhukumatathil hears what the ancient Asian poets could hear in the sound of temple bells continuing in the wings of startled birds. She can do that. Keats spoke of feeling things on his pulses. She can do that. Wallace Stevens could take us from "black coffee and oranges in a sunny chair" to a longing for an imperishable bliss for the connection between the observer and the observed, that which radiates and connects us whether we know it or not. Nezhukumatathil awakes in us such a longing.

My brother, I never knew you,
and yet unfairly, you know everything
about me. Standing there in our father’s
old shirt, I paint to talk to you.
I paint to talk with you
through my fingers, as if you lay
somewhere between the thin slips
of paint and my hand.

from JOSEPH SEES ME PAINTING MY THUMBS BLUE
(for my brother who almost happened) 52

She is a sensual soul-detective. In THE ALLIGATOR, 32 "a pair of night eyes steady...dip below the watery plains–and (she is) left/ stretching to see where they will resurface. A split of waterplants" tells us where it is. Back at Cocoa Beach:

Best of all are the small impressions
of a mother’s feet into a shoreline
soft and dark as unfrosted cake. The prints
say, Here is where she lingered over
a queen Conch shell. Here is where
she stayed the morning to gather bits:
fire sponges, jingle shells, a remnant of whelk.

from COCOA BEACH, OFF SEASON 48

She recalls a time that she and her sister took photos in the poem, LAGOON, but they didn't come out the way she thought they would; she was especially disappointed that there were "no stingrays, not even

one of their violet shadows on the ocean floor.
Now I think all the empty ocean and coral beds
behind us mean more, mean Use Your Imagination.
Can't you just picture the swoop of a dark pair

of wings beneath your flippered feet, the surprising
golden iris of their eyes like teeny underwater lights,
the ripple of a cold body burying itself in pink sand?

from LAGOON, 49

She decides to telephone her sister, Joanne, and gets a voice that sounds like her own saying "I'm not here, please leave a message." The physical absence of a thing or of a person is for her a medium to a deeper and very beautiful reality.

It is not all light, though. In THE PURCHASE, she has bought a puppy and in her happiness calls home. Her mother, after telling her a horrible story about a dog being killed that had nearly died trying to protect a baby, remembers a dachshund given to her by an engineer,

. . . How she fed the dog sausages and cheese
and later forgot it in the park, like a glove
     or a knit hat—
she was so mad it didn't find its way home! And there's
nothing more I can tell her: nothing about choosing
a teeny collar, a name, watching your love fold
old blankets into a crate. The surprising star-shaped
     paw prints
near the water dish. She will remember only
     the dangers, the blood,
her one attempt lost near the rose gardens
     and hysterical geese.

from THE PURCHASE 14

There is also the sorrow we find in LITTLE HOUSES, 42: the loneliness of Frieda Kahlo, the tragic absurdity of Marie Antoinette and the poignancy of Harriet Tubman, whenever she crossed into free soil saying, "I's sure / Livin' In Heaven now."

In the frontispiece to her 73 poems, Aimee Nezhukumatathil chose to place this Chinese proverb: "If Heaven drops a date, open your mouth." Heaven has dropped 73 dates. I envy you tasting them for the first time.

© Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier

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