On Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s ‘Oceanic’

Review by Samantha Finley


Nezhukumatathil coverThe love for one’s home in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s work is consistently explored and displayed through dynamic layers of both environmental and geographical contexts. This has been true from her 2003 debut, Miracle Fruit, to her subsequent collections, At the Drive-In Volcano, and Lucky Fish. In her newest, Oceanic, Nezhukumatathil elegantly embodies her Filipina-Malayali-Indian culture, while simultaneously inviting the reader into the most far-flung sceneries of fragrant foods and luscious landscapes among instances of heartbreak or, simply, pure love.


In order to capture the complete essence of Oceanic, it is important to, first, acknowledge the multiple facets of the word in which Nezhukumatathil thoughtfully nestles into the finer moments of this collection. Merriam-Webster provides three adjectival definitions for “oceanic”: of or relating to the sea; of, relating to, or occurring in the open sea; unusually large. To say that Nezhukumatathil reaches far into the unknown corners of these definitions would be an understatement. Throughout the collection, she maintains familiarity and a sense of place within the broad spectrum of the word by embodying the voices of vast bodies, her belonging to them. Within this, she also focuses on the importance of continually caring for one’s environment, as well as what it means to embrace one’s home and the self-identity that comes with it.


In the opening poem, a persona titled “Self-Portrait as Scallop,” Nezhukumatathil introduces a speaker who returns to the reader many times throughout, one who is enamored with the idea of seeing and, in turn, being seen herself. Within the context of this poem, and the way it foreshadows others in the collection, it is worth noting that artist Sandro Boticelli’s 15th-Century painting The Birth of Venus details a fully-grown Venus emerging from the sea by way of a scallop shell shortly after her birth. Nezhukumatathil’s voice toes the line of Venus’ voice from the start, forming a powerful dynamic, where the speaker’s voice reads more authoritatively, rather than a blur between truth and myth. Moreover, depictions of ancient times have often portrayed hinge-shelled organisms as a symbol of feminine fertility, and with this opening poem, the speaker is welcoming the reader into this beautifully mysterious world that is the ocean, as well as a world set within the bounds of ancient feminine principle.


Later in the collection, Nezhukumatathil continues to use paintings and mythology as muses in order to express vastness. In “dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate one second before waking up,” titled after a Salvador Dalí painting, Nezhukumatathil addresses time in the largest and smallest of quantities. With this comes images of the microscopic beat of a heart or of the wings of a fly. These images create a feeling of zooming in and out as they are juxtaposed against a large, veiled discussion of the future impact of global warming as Nezhukumatathil writes:


In twenty-four
microseconds, a stick of dynamite will explode after
its fuse burned down. Houseflies flick their wings once
every three milliseconds. Even that fly is long gone

to the other side of the yard in the time it took to write flick.
Giant tortoises and compact discs last one hundred years.
In one million years, Los Angeles will move forty kilometers
north because of plate tectonics.


In a trio of mythological poems, where Nezhukumatathil brings forth a “reimagining” of Cupid and Psyche’s love story, the reader sees another ekphrastic take, “Venus Instructing Cupid to Torment Psyche,” after Jakob de Wit’s painting of the same name. In this poem, the reader is brought back to Venus’ femininity. At the forefront, Venus is engulfed by her jealousy of Psyche’s beauty and her son’s devotion to Psyche, which she feels threatens her position as the goddess of love, as well as Cupid’s perceived devotion to her.


At face value, the sources of the allusions in these ekphrastic poems have reached large audiences over the courses of their various histories, making them, in some ways, immeasurable as they circle back to the title of the collection and its allusion to size. But reaching beyond the multitude of art-historical references, Nezhukumatathil centers her concern around self-identity, how it can be portrayed via many personas, and what it means to simply be.


“On Listening to Your Teacher Take Attendance” is a poem that captures the idea of being within the brief moment of a grade-school roll call. The speaker feels vulnerable as her teacher “butchers” her name, placing identity at the forefront of the poem. Such vulnerability is also present in “Invitation.” This second-person poem calls to the reader, “Come in, come in—the water’s fine! You can’t get lost here—even / if you wanted to hide behind a clutch of spiny oysters. I’ll find you.” Immediately, the tone feels light and giddy, though insistent, as the speaker encourages the reader to submerge themselves into such a busy, organism-filled environment. With the closing lines, Nezhukumatathil writes:


                       If you still want to look up, 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.


These lines shift the outwardness of the poem inward, sobering the reader’s perception of the scene as the speaker seems to be encouraging herself, rather, to appreciate the home that Earth offers to humans.


Another prominent element of identity within Oceanic is Nezhukumatathil’s zoomed-in exploration of various places she has lived or visited. In the poem “from The Rambutan Notebooks,” Nezhukumatathil’s speaker is recalling a moment of youth, where she remembers a geographical place that she was once a part of, noting that she has recently “been studying the word home.” The speaker addresses her younger self by saying:


I won’t ask the rambutan about its messy hair.
I know you are tired of trying to flatten
your hair into something it is not. When
it is meant to flap and fly in the wind-salted air.
Unplug the iron. Let the questions of what is beauty
and what is not-beauty fruit down your back.
Sometimes it is possible to still embrace
the wildness of home, even if the lone window
in your room only blooms snow and more snow.


In these lines, the speaker is encouraging her younger self to continue to remember where she came from, despite the drastic difference between the old and the new. The speaker also returns the reader to the previous ideas of femininity by referencing a time when her younger self was concerned with altering her physical appearance in order to seem less of a symbol of her home. The present-tense view of the poem shows the reader that the speaker’s thoughts on this matter have evolved, instead, into a sense of pride. She is no longer bound by ideals of feminine beauty—which are predominantly rooted within whiteness, and suggested in the poem by the image of the bright, hair-like covering of the white rambutan fruit, as well as the snow—and has learned to foster the sense of self that she has found in wherever she calls home.


Nezhukumatathil closes the collection with a bookend to the opening poem. In “Bengal Tiger,” the land-based speaker creates a contrast to the opening sea-based speaker, though fittingly, the voice of the tiger reiterates the aforementioned longing for a sense of place and identity. The poem opens with a setting sun—a traditional symbol of farewell—but Nezhukumatathil leaves, front and center, the tarnished, ornamental symbol of the tiger and its fur’s representation of luxury. She writes:


Each stripe becomes
a whole fable
with turned-down
pages, one of those
stories that ends
with candy scattered,
cookie roof collapsed—
and a child stepping
out of a fire, shoes
still shiny and clean.


Within these lines, the reader can see the narrowness of the poem’s visual layout, which portrays the mentioned stripes that serve as metaphorical reference points to the tiger’s life. The reader is also guided to view the tiger’s ornamentality via the elements of a youthful fable, where the language might embody a more careful tone in order to mask the reality for its young reader. But ultimately, the story, in this case, might communicate the experience of a harrowing event—one in which the reader has the ability to escape.


Considering the way Nezhukumatathil leads the reader through this collection, it is clear that her love for the Earth and its inhabitants is bold and wholehearted. Her storytelling, in addition, creates a cohesive atmosphere that continuously upholds the ideas presented throughout Oceanic. Whether the poems present the reader with images of an actual ocean, or an earthly setting with ocean-like accents, or simply an idea that is immensely large, it is evident that each was crafted in order to ensure the embodiment of experiences that highlight how the definition of oceanic can lie solely in the reader’s perception.

Samantha Finley is a native Ohioan living in New York City, where she recently received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Currently, she is working on a book-length manuscript of poetry.