Essay

Without a Compass

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poems explore the mysteries of love.
Image of Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Elizabeth Bishop taught a poetry workshop at the University of Washington in 1966. One of her students was the painter and paleontologist Wesley Wehr, who one day asked his renowned teacher for advice about love. She stared “incredulously” at him, he recalls in an essay written years later, and answered, “You want to ask me a question about what? Did you say it was about love? What would ever possibly give you the idea that I of all people would know anything about a thing like that?” (Bishop’s own love life was often scarred by heartbreak, including the suicide of her longtime partner the following year.)

Later that afternoon, perhaps feeling guilty about her brusqueness, Bishop offered Wehr a new answer: “If any happiness ever comes your way, grab it!”

That’s sound advice, but why do we look to poets for wisdom about love anyway? Perhaps we think art confers upon its practitioners unique insight into the human condition or that poetry, at its most passionate, somehow mimics the experience of love. Maybe the reason is simpler: the mysteriousness of love urges us to seek explanations in the innocent belief that whatever we understand cannot be lost.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s clever, playful poems speak directly to that mysteriousness. Throughout her four collections, she plumbs those moments when love, at its most rapturous, entails a loss of self, an abandonment that verges on the reckless. Though her poems sketch a panorama of sensuality—where love can be erotic, maternal, familial, or environmental—she specializes in the private gesture and the kind of domestic intimacy that resists grand proclamations. Hers is a literary project inspired as much by the desires that American culture omits as by those it rhapsodizes.

“When I first started writing poems in college, I rarely, if ever, was exposed to any love poems by an Asian American woman—ones that included motherhood and sensuality and brown skin and the outdoors,” Nezhukumatathil tells me. “So I think a tiny part of me thought it was forbidden in some way, and when you see an absence and void of yourself in American letters, what does that do to a young writer?”

In Nezhukumatathil’s case, it inspired her to write poetry that weaves in and out of motherhood, cultural identity, and the environment. Her debut collection, Miracle Fruit, published in 2003 when she was 28, is full of sharp, fleeting moments of love and flirtation, often juxtaposed with nature. In the poem “One Bite,” she writes, “Miracle fruit changes the tongue. One bite, / and for hours all you eat is sweet.” Miraculin, a glycoprotein extracted from miracle fruit, tricks the tongue into tasting sweetness where there isn’t any, much as love can blind us to our beloved’s flaws. Nezhukumatathil shows us the fruit—“Small as a coffee bean, red as jam” and how “it quivers like it’s cold / from the ceramic” of a saucer—but her interest in eccentric detail arrests the lyric moment. The narrator is on the road with her father, and the man on Interstate 542 in Florida who sold them the fruit “had one / tooth, one sandal.” The young narrator is confused by the transaction, but after one bite, she’s sold, knowing “if you eat it whole, it softens // and swells your teeth like a mouthful / of mallow.”

Nezhukumatathil ends the poem with a question ostensibly about miracle fruit but really about love: “How long / before you lose the sweetness?” In Miracle Fruit, love itself is something fructuous: sour, sweet, and temporary, a source of both nostalgia and occasional disillusionment. (I’m reminded of Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry-Picking,” an ode to summer harvests that turns suddenly existential: “It wasn’t fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. / Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”)

Other poems in the book also yoke love to the conquest of fruit. Fruit, after all, is pulled, picked, peeled, smashed, juiced, bitten into. Aggression underlies the sweetness. In “The Woman Who Turned Down a Date with a Cherry Farmer,” the narrator begins with a kind of sigh—“Of course I regret it,” she says, referring to the would-be romance she refused—before noting that her fingers bled red “from the fruitwounds of cherries” plunked into her bucket. She’s marked not with the scarlet letter of opprobrium but the scarlet juice of our most sexualized fruit. Meanwhile, the cherry farmer points out which trees in his orchard are the most fecund and sweet, which fruit could make “a small gun of your mouth.” Their flirtation dances across the lines. He’s strong but “careful, / nimble enough to pull fruit from his trees without tearing / the thin skin.” He asks her out, but she declines and then regrets it: “I just know my summer would’ve been / full of pies, tartlets, turnovers—so much jubilee.”

The narrator here is decisive and confident, even in regret. The narrator of “Small Murders” is much the same. “I knew I had you when you told me // You could not live without my scent,” she says, addressing some lost beloved and comparing herself to Cleopatra, who perfumed herself and her cedarwood ship so Antony “would smell her in advance across the sea.” On a date to the movies, the narrator describes how “a new boy leaned in close to whisper that he loved // the smell of my perfume,” the same perfume that her ex had “handpicked years ago.” Still addressing this nameless old lover, she continues:

I could tell he wanted to kiss me, his breath heavy and slow
against my neck. My face blue from the movie screen—
I said nothing, only sat up and stared straight ahead. But
by evening’s end, I let him have it: twenty-seven kisses
// on my neck, twenty-seven small murders of you.

If the narrator here strives to break the spell of an old flame, the teenage narrator of “Hell Pig” strives for enough freedom to fall under someone’s spell in the first place. It’s a poem of thwarted desire. The narrator’s mother warns her of the eponymous monster, the illusory hell pig, “Black and full // of hot drool, eyes the color of a lung,” who will follow her home if she stays out past curfew. The narrator wonders how to explain her truncated evenings to friends, how to whisper to her dates “why we could not finish this dance?” The real monster is the “scandal” of a young woman out late with a boy, and yet the narrator tempts fate:

When my date and I
pull into my driveway and dim the lights, we take //
care to make all the small noises that get made
in times like these even smaller: squeaks in the seats, //
a slow spin of the radio dial, the silver click of my belt.

Nonetheless, the hell pig hears her and bristles to life, its “wet breaths puffing into tiny clouds, a small storm brewing.” The poem is a tense negotiation between the exuberance of youth and late nights and the sadness of seeing such nights end, only to return home empty-handed and unfulfilled. It’s a poem in which the demands of feminine propriety trump the possibilities of desire.  

“Hell Pig” suggests that romantic love often fails, but in poems such as “Wrap,” also from Miracle Fruit, Nezhukumatathil captures the value of self-love—the love of one’s culture and heritage. The titular word doesn’t mean the end to a film “Nor tortillas splitting / with the heavy wet of bean” nor even “what you do // with your lavender robe all fluff / and socks to snatch the paper / from the shrubs.” It means the narrator’s waiting with her grandmother at the Trivandrum Airport, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, as her grandmother’s

small hand wraps //
again the emerald green pallu of her sari
tucked in at her hips, across her breast,
and coughs it up over her shoulder a hush
of paprika and burnt honey across my face.

The narrator’s affirmation of personal identity, a lineage expressed in the scent of paprika and burnt honey, is a pronouncement of love. It’s also a rebuke to the “absence and void” of Asian American female poets that Nezhukumatathil lamented as a young writer.

Poems about identity, love, and the standoff between the two return in Nezhukumatathil’s second collection, At the Drive-In Volcano, published in 2007. The book’s structure, as described in the endnotes, is organized by the “thematic movements in a volcano’s lifespan,” which include origins, growth, and decline. The often curious, searching forms of love in Miracle Fruit are here replaced by what critic Rigoberto González calls a “distinctively sinister edge”: a love that cuts more than it coddles. In her sophomore book, Nezhukumatathil contrasts a love lost with a new, long-term relationship.   

She plays the recursive villanelle form in “After the Auction, I Bid You Good-Bye” to dramatize how love hijacks other emotions. In the poem, a couple attends an antiques auction, but the narrator can’t hear her lover’s whispers “above the auctioneer’s racket,” a gentle foreshadowing of what will come. Later, while they are together in bed, the narrator’s lover impersonates the “clipped speech of the auctioneer.” She is smitten—“Like a wild, thick mop / I soak up every copper smell from your corduroy jacket”—but she knows that in two days she will take her lover to the airport and bid him farewell. A hug, “then a quick kiss good-bye / tacked on at the end.”

Nezhukumatathil’s villanelle is ultimately the song of a woeful narrator whose carefree prelude sours into longing. “I’ll finger the rim on the paper coffee cup / you leave in my car. When I hear your name I can’t forget // how your long torso pressed against my bare back, / bluish in this early light,” the narrator says, the turn from tenderness to eroticism capturing the pain of being separated from a lover. Soon, longing explodes into full-throated lament: “There is no lack // of how it haunts me still—what I bid—lost, sacked / and wrapped for other girls.” The narrator thinks to herself, “I should have looked up / to see who else was bidding” on her lover’s heart, but instead, she says, “I studied the folds in your jacket.”

Other poems in At the Drive-In Volcano connect the anxieties of love to broader cultural themes. In “First Anniversary, With Monkeys,” the narrator and her husband are lost in the Periyar Nature Preserve in southern India, where the narrator’s “tube / of sunblock is as warm as a baby’s bottle.” She’s thankful that her husband’s hands can cover the places she can’t reach and that he “never worried if our families would clash” and “never worried // about my relatives staring at [his] pale, muscled calves.”

More visceral threats divert these cross-cultural meditations. “Don’t make sudden moves // or snakes startled from an afternoon nap / will greet you fang first,” a voice, perhaps the husband’s, advises the narrator. Yet, the paean to marriage isn’t over. Nezhukumatathil doesn’t end her poems so much as exit them. Love doesn’t conclude but accumulates. Although the couple is lost, the narrator doesn’t mind the drift: “We made it one year / without a compass and we’re not about to start now.”

Lucky Fish, published in 2011, is fueled by similar optimism. In “Baked Goods,” for example, hope takes the form of a domestic tableau. “Flour on the floor makes my sandals / slip and I tumble into your arms,” says the narrator, busy baking blueberry muffins on a sultry morning. The sudden, lurid news report of a man “in the city rescued from his apartment / that was filled with a thousand rats” disrupts the poem’s idyllic early lines. This man, we’re told, is angry that his python refused to eat, and so

He let the bloom //
of fur rise, rise over the little gnarly blue rug,
over the coffee table, the kitchen countertops //
and pip through each cabinet, snip
at the stumpy paper bags of sugar, //
the cylinders of salt.

Nezhukumatathil exits this snapshot as abruptly as she summoned it, and mid line we are back in the lovers’ apartment, in “a kitchen wrecked // with love.” The calm of their apartment is even more placid in contrast to the snake owner’s, a place wrecked with anger, where a man’s love turned on itself and became a literal infestation. His rats gnaw at everything the way unrequited love gnaws at everything. Anger, the poems suggests, is love taken to its most desperate extreme. “Baked Goods” illustrates how Nezhukumatathil negotiates sentimentality and strangeness throughout her love poems.

Perhaps because those sentimental moments feel so authentic and earnest, Nezhukumatathil brings a playful self-awareness to poems such as “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” I can imagine guileless readers asking Nezhukumatathil the question in the poem’s title, and her response is “If by real you mean as real as a shark tooth stuck / in your heel, the wetness of a finished lollipop stick,” then yes, they are real, but no more so than the “whole neighborhood of past loves” that she married. In this alternative imagined universe, her various husbands chop parsley for dinner, change the baby, and shave in the shower, keeping house in a world of inverted gender roles where each man wonders what time the narrator is coming home.

It’s almost a poem of separation from readers, a reminder to keep our distance and not assume that poems are autobiographical. In the third section of Lucky Fish, however, it’s hard not to read the work as reflecting Nezhukumatathil’s own experiences raising two sons. In her long poem “Birth Geographic,” her imagery is cartographic: “When you give birth, there is no map—no bud and burst of compass / blooming in the corner of the page.” But there are some things of which she is sure. She knows, for example, that the boy growing inside her “smelled like the sea.”

As “Birth Geographic” progresses, the second-person shifts from general address to addressing fellow mothers to addressing the narrator’s son in particular. “Because I know talk like this frightens you, I will say this only once: If I am / ever lost or someone ever wonders if the cause of my death is by my own /  hand—let it be known that I will never leave you on my own accord.” There’s a palpable gratitude for life here, for the audacity of existence itself. “I / swear to you here and now: If I ever go missing, know that I am trying to / come home.”

When asked about this imagery, Nezhukumatathil says, “There is so much ugliness in the world, and often it's not until months or years after I've written a poem where I realize I've included a 'signaling' image, or several images, as if to insist, to speak on another plane that there is love on this planet, to insist there will always be love in my poems, even in the bleakest of circumstances and stanzas.”

The later poems in Lucky Fish begin that evolution toward love’s ubiquity. Poems such as “Waiting for Him to Speak” are illuminated by the hopeful love that a new mother feels for her child. She has so many dreams for him, as every mother does, among which is the gift of speech. “She repeats colors, her name, his name, // points out cats and birds in his chunky books / and he studies them close, but is silent.” Readers feel her impatience: “Sometimes she sighs and the sigh is a pin / of wind through his hair.” The space between them is charged with the anxious love of motherhood as she waits and waits for his words, feeling “guilty / for waiting, for wanting it so badly.” By poem’s end, the child’s words remain unsaid.  

This is work by a poet discovering new avenues for love. In a 1982 interview, the poet Audre Lorde says that all poets write verse about their first love, that “new and great” moment that stirs the heart. “But when you’ve been writing love poems” for years, Lorde says, “the later poems are the ones that really hit the nitty gritty, that meet your boundaries . . . these poems insist that you can’t separate loving from fighting, from dying, from hurting, but love is triumphant.” The poems in Nezhukumatathil’s latest collection, Oceanic, mine our spiritual and sensual relationships to Earth. They unite her signature themes and interests—identity, cartography, discovery, flora, and fauna—with this new, ongoing consideration of motherhood.

Many of the poems portray love as an experience of immersion. Metaphorically, anyway, we are under and surrounded by water, as the book’s title indicates. Some poems, such as “Sea Church,” feature almost oracular child narrators: “Give me a church / made entirely of salt. / Let the walls hiss / and smoke when / I return to shore.” At night, the narrator says a “waterprayer / rising like a host / of paper lanterns / in the inky evening.” Other poems intimate a more adult voice, as in “When Lucille Bogan Sings ‘Shave ’Em Dry.’” As she listens to the raunchy lyrics of Bogan’s 1935 blues, the narrator says,

I blush quicker than a school of blue jack mackerel
arranging itself into an orb of dazzle to avoid //
nips and gulps from the dolphins who’ve been silently
trailing them, waiting for them to relax.

The narrator can’t look her husband in the eye as they listen together. “[W]e both get // a light bless of sweat on, a bright address that still maps / us to each other after all this time.” (There, again, is the cartographic allusion.) Bogan’s words are explicit—the song is a woman’s invitation to “grind me until I cry”—but they are nonetheless a catalyst that in the “cicada-electric Mississippi night,” leading to “a long kiss good and sweet.”

In “Naming the Heartbeats,” the narrator admits to becoming the “person who says Darling, who says Sugarpie, / Honeybunch, Snugglebear—and that’s just for my children.” Her terms of endearment for her husband are “unprintable” because all we need to know is “I am / his sweetheart, and finally, finally—I answer to his call and his / alone.”

And in that space of cataloged love, or at least euphemisms for love, there remains mystery. We might be able to recognize love when we see it, the poem suggests, but there are routes and caverns within that love that remain nameless. By the poem’s end, the imagery goes cosmic and the language exultant as it surveys all of nature and the animal kingdom.

But what is it called when creatures on this earth curl
and sleep, when shadows of moons we don’t yet know brush across
our faces? And what is the name for the movement we make when
we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying
to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams.

Nezhukumatathil’s love poems document breakups and disappointments, all the rote gestures of affairs and marriages, but she reminds us throughout that love is essentially a kind of wonder. It’s a poetic mood that recalls Philip Larkin’s ode to jazz musician Sidney Bechet: “[o]n me your voice falls as they say love should, / like an enormous yes.” The evolution and range of Nezhukumatathil’s poems from the erotic to the familial to the maternal speak to the dizzying varieties of love. The poems are also an eloquent argument for the need to remain open, vulnerable, and ready to plunge headlong into the unknown. If love ever comes your way, she seems to say, echoing Bishop’s advice from a half-century ago, grab it and hold tight.

Originally Published: February 12th, 2018

Nick Ripatrazone is a contributing editor at The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Sewanee Review.