With “The Secret of Soil,” Aimee Nezhukumatathil opens her new book of poems, her fourth, within a secret: “The secret of smoke is that it will fill / any space with walls.” This secret truly belongs to the poetic imagination, of course, and speaks to how we daily embody the world, “no matter how delicate” the space, by giving it breaths of us, taking back lungfuls, placing ourselves here, and pressing our weight onto it:
The secret of soil is that it is alive—
a step in the forest means
you are carried on the back
of a thousand bugs. The secret
I give you is on page forty-two
of my old encyclopedia set.
I cut out all the pictures of minerals
and gemstones. I could not take
their beauty, could not swallow
that such stones lived deep inside
the earth. I wanted to tape them
to my hands and wrists…
In this first poem, the speaker not only encodes wonderment as “the secret” eager to find poetic expression, but also as the beauty we might realize only through living willfully and aware, our imaginations unearthing and hoarding images like precious stones.
In poem after poem of this solid collection, Nezhukumatathil does what Marianne Moore suggests poetry ought to do, place readers in “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”—as such she guides us through the imaginary realm, “with all its rawness,” of the poet’s world attuned to our senses.
Throughout Lucky Fish, Nezhukumatathil’s imagination shrinks distance, pulling far-away places close—India and the Ozark Mountains, Kansas and the Philippines—twice as fast as a search engine. Yet, unlike a website’s gimmicky claim to really set you down in some distant locale, her places work as metonyms and never allege to do more than identify herself as a particular person caught within a world webbed in memory and significance.
And these far-away-but-close metonyms shimmer with the life she remembers there. In “A Globe Is Just An Asterisk And Every Home Should Have An Asterisk,” she recalls her childhood in central Florida while driving to her “parents’ house / and into their garage, and up the pull-down stairs / in their attic to find my old globe from 1983.” The speaker recollects all the time she passed as a girl spinning the globe, feeling the bumpy relief pass beneath her “thumb and forefinger,” and noting “ the bar scale that showed how many miles per inch.” The poem concludes by demarcating memory and the imagination’s limits in encompassing the real:
I tried to pinch the widest part
of the Pacific Ocean, the distance between me
and India, me and the Philippines. The space
between the shorelines was too wide. My hand
was always empty when it came to land, to knowing
where is home. I dip my hands in the sea. I net
nothing but seaweed and a dizzy, single smelt.
Many poems descend associatively, from something like an aerial view to that of the near-microcosmic. Consider these sentences from “The Ghost-Fish Postcards”: “The islands first appear like cupcakes in the sea, the centers etched out from shrimp & salt,” and “A slide into the happy mouth of an oyster. To get stuck & rub into you like an angry letter. Or sometimes soft as a kiss.”
These poems, even though written from the imagination’s sensuous joy, often register life’s heft and seriousness. “Birth Geographic,” a long prose poem in 18 sections, addresses her newborn son: “let it be known that I will never leave you of my own accord. Never. If someone takes me, I will scratch and bite until I gargle soil. My mouth will be an angry mouth if anyone rips me from you. The center of my hands boiled with blossoms when we made a family. I would never flee that garden.”
And “Toy Universe,” as another example of the poet’s tonal heft and seriousness, finds the dark side of her son’s happy toys:
In my son's toy universe, all transportation
has a face. There are smiley faces on trains
race cars, buses. Even his white rescue helicopter
has a jaunty smirk across its windshield.
...There are stars above China.
There are stars that smell like licorice
and there are stars some children cannot see
because they are piecing together toy trains
and race cars and buses for my child.
Knowing that child labor possibly made these toys casts a pall over her enjoyment of watching her son play with them.
And yet “We make our own happiness,” Nezhukumatathil states toward the end of the collection, in “Inside the Happiness Factory”:
The first time I flew without my son, my chest pulsed
two hot discs of pain whenever I heard a baby cry.
I never told anyone this. We make our own happiness.
I just smiled at the babies, fighting the urge to lift up
my blouse right then and there. And my crooked smile
is my son’s: our bottom teeth do not line up
with our top teeth, but when we smile, we smile big
and bright. We make our own happiness.
Throughout, Lucky Fish asserts the supremacy of the sensual over the cerebral, the imagination’s brightness as essential to the illumination of the real. We are most alive, these poems all but sing, when sensing and perceiving more than judging, and this almost radical poetic stance is the backbone of Nezhukumatathil’s new collection.