EDITORS like dark poems better than joyful ones, I have heard. Or, some writers may believe, cynicism is hipper than sincerity. I have been warned against writing too many “happy” poems, as if happiness has the power to turn a poem into a Hallmark card.
Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil blows such speculations out of the water with her third book, Lucky Fish. You could say that this charming and buoyant book is “about” a lot of things — finding a home, love — but really, these poems point toward the importance of attentiveness as a path to joy, however fragile. And while the poems are lucid enough that even the most inexperienced poetry reader would find pleasure in them, they are, like joy itself, anything but predictable or simple.
Lucky Fish begins with the section “The Globe Is Just an Asterisk”; these poems cross the globe, sweeping through familiar Nezhukumatathil territory — her family’s homelands, the Philippines and India, and folklore and factoids from the life sciences and cooking. In the second section, “Sweet Tooth,” the poet gradually narrows her focus to a home in upstate New York, teaching, and marriage. The final section, “Lucky Penny,” contains work about motherhood, including the most beautiful, powerful poem about an unplanned C-section I have ever read (“Birth Geographic”).
As in her first two books, Miracle Fruit and At the Drive-In Volcano, the array of subject matter dazzles (flowers that eat people, moray eels), and so does the language (a pie “pipe[s] hot steamsongs”). But in this book, the author is better than ever at resisting conclusions, relying instead on the associative power of images to build in the reader’s subconscious.
In “Paper Person,” a poem speculating on the origins of paper in ancient China, an interplay builds among the eunuch-scribe collecting wasps that “spread / [mulberry wood pulp] into thin walls, spit casings for a whole / ochre nest to spin in their sleep”; the “inky curl” of his calligraphy; the pile of bodies near his candle, a “pile of wing / and mandible rolled into striped / commas”; and the speaker’s wondering about the “space / between his legs, the void of tailed cells . . . [h]is skin there thin as the very [first] paper.”
This same resistance to closure allows Nezhukumatathil to magnificently bind the domestic and the political in some of the book’s later poems. In “Waiting for Him to Speak,” the speaker reflects on the animals that will become extinct before her son begins to talk. The poem simply ends, “he will have his books. He will always have his books,” suggesting both the substitute for experience that books can be — the picture-book world of “hippos wearing pajamas” — and the power that reading books might someday give any child, educating him to one day make a difference in the world, however battered that world might already be.
And what of happiness? Nezhukumatathil seems of two minds: On one hand, “we make our own happiness,” she says repeatedly in the poem “Inside the Happiness Factory.” However, threaded throughout this volume is an understanding of risk and randomness — of luck. If the mulberry tree had been chopped down, the speaker says in one poem, she never would have found the man she loves. And why, in the poem “Toy Universe,” are her children playing with toys while children in China are locked in factories to make them? “I am a lucky fish,” she declares in yet another poem.
In a recent interview with The Rumpus, Nezhukumatathil mentioned the quote by Rachel Carson that she puts on one of her teaching syllabi: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders of the universe, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race.” It’s a task Nezhukumatathil seems to have taken to heart. Lucky us.