Editor’s Note: Mia Ayumi Malhotra takes offers us a close look at a pair of poetry books by API authors to escape into during National Poetry Month.
Equal parts myth, memoir, and natural history text, the poems in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s third collection of poetry, Lucky Fish, are delightful hybrid creations. Drawing from far-flung places across the globe, the lines are elegantly constructed, and consistently marked by a delicate music that is both restrained, as in “Fortune-Telling Parrot”:
I will pick
a black card
of luck for you:
mirror, ostrich eye,
and jasmine bloom
… and expansive, as in the sibilant lines: “The wishes of sand are simple: to slip soft under a tumbling of shells. A slide into the happy mouth of an oyster.” Grounded in concrete, lyrical observations of domestic life (“Too hot to bake this morning but / blueberries begged me to fold them / into moist muffins”) and the curiosities of the natural world, Nezhukumatathil’s writing is of a world beautifully observed—its joys, terrors and moments of arresting intimacy.
Part One, “A Globe Is Just an Asterisk,” is concerned mostly with the origins of things (paper; the color red, derived from the pigment of tiny insects lodged in the “earlobey plate[s] of cacti”), and ranges broadly in geographic scope. These poems also establish the many homelands (India, the Philippines, Florida, Kansas) that comprise the speaker’s kaleidoscope self. In recalling the globe that stood in her childhood home, she says,
… 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 single, dizzy smelt.
Positioned thus between opposing shores, working futilely to determine “where is home,” the speaker presents herself as a kind of “dizzy smelt” drawn from the spaces between. “Sweet Tooth,” the second section of the book, tracks the evolution of this shifting self from adolescence (in a “first training bra— / no cup, just little triangle pieces stitched together”) to adulthood. Part Three extends into a meditation on motherhood, and the male child that emerges in these poems, “All fur, quickstep, and howl,” is both wild and miraculous, an object of wonder “born with lanugo—fine hairs like a furred stem of daisy—across his shoulders / and on the tops of the his ears.”
Throughout Lucky Fish, the poet calls us to not only “look carefully at the dark netting of [her] mouth” in order to examine the finely-wrought features of her poetry, but also to understand the speaker herself as a kind of lucky fish, one that “curls up red / and flimsy in your hand.” For after all, it is this figure, a version of Nezhukumatathil herself, who is embodied in her poems, and whom we are invited to see as the “catch” of this collection, a single lucky fish pulled from the Pacific.
Voyager, Srikanth Reddy’s second book of poetry, is an ambitious, richly imaginative work that poses vital questions about truth, authorship and narrative possibility in contemporary literature. Structured as three books within one, Voyager is a series of erasures of the former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s memoir, In the Eye of the Storm. Beginning with Waldheim’s account, which famously obscures the politician’s involvement with Nazi intelligence forces in World War II Germany, Reddy “erases” large segments of each page, revealing alternative, but always linked, narrative journeys concealed in the source text and exposing a multiplicity of lyric possibilities within this single, totalizing narrative.
“Book One,” comprised of a series of terse single-line stanzas, introduces us to an unfamiliar Kurt Waldheim, one who speaks with chilling aphoristic authority:
The world is the world.
To deny it is to break with reason.
Nevertheless it would be reasonable to question the affair.
The speaker studies the world to determine the extent of his troubles.
He studies the night overhead.
The language operates with an elliptical, compressed imagism, gesturing repeatedly to the imminent “collapse” of the world. A sense of tragedy permeates the lines, as though in reading these ruthlessly winnowed fragments of Waldheim’s text, we are bearing witness to the wreckage of history:
Carry out the bodies.
The body in the line means little.
Namibia Namibia Namibia.
“Book Two,” composed of 16 elegantly constructed blocks of prose, shifts into the more familiar conventions of narrative prose:
“In November last year, I became interested in the fate of a machine which had been launched into creation and disappeared from sight during my boyhood. The thought of it roaming our solar system unconcerned about the policies of the regime was a relief from the strains and suspicions that surrounded us at home.”
These poems form a kind of autobiographical account, written as the speaker watches anti-war protests through the windows of his office and, staring at a globe, wonders about the “parallel journey” of the Voyager spacecrafts overhead.
In the third and final book, the lyric “I” undertakes an allegorical, Dante-like journey into a realm “beneath,” an eerie venture considering that beneath (or perhaps parallel to) the poems of Voyager exists a whole other textual realm, that is, Waldheim’s memoir. One feels as though the “real” text—and with it, the truth—has receded somewhere beyond our reach, like the Voyager spacecrafts launched in the 1970s.
In the epilogue, whose lines, dramatically struck from the page, reveal the procedure by which the previous books were composed, the poet literally censors page after page of the Secretary-General’s language, allowing only select words and phrases to peer through the filter of the erasure.
With Voyager, Srikanth Reddy makes the argument that all poetry we read is, in some way, “erased” or derived from contested source material: memory, history, the experiences of those who have preceded us. For this reason, the book is not only an intriguing, but essential contribution to contemporary poetry.