Our good friend, poet Ilya Kaminsky, knows contemporary poetry like no one else. We’re proud to be publishing his mini-reviews and one-question interviews with poets we admire.
What I love about Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s new book, World of Wonders, is how it relishes in the language of communing, how it teaches us about different kinds of community and communing, both with our neighbors and with the natural world we live in. One might call that “nature writing,” but I wonder if that term quite captures what the book is doing. It shows the language of communing with the world, the language that captures the ruptures and strangeness and delight and pain in the everyday. Perhaps this is because World of Wonders is also a story of what it means to live in the United States: the racism, the micro and macro aggressions, the journey of her family as they move between different parts of the country, between different communities. The book testifies to that journey over the years. Ultimately, this is an inspiring, very hopeful book. 2020 has been such a hard year for so many; these had been quite a few hard years. But Aimee Nezhukumatathil finds ways to delight in being. She finds a language that seeks delight.
QUESTION: There is both a rapture of the natural world and a sadness of having lived through history. There is seeking of the language of delight in your work and knowing what it takes to get there. I wonder if you could speak a bit about your relationship to language?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: After the election of 2016, I began to regard the linebreak as one more tyranny I could not abide. I will always turn to poems, but I needed the space and wide horizon of going ‘margin to margin’ even though most of these essays are mostly no more than five pages. I’ve seen a lot of the United States, lived in a lot of this country, and what I’ve found is that the outdoors is a universal language. The garden is a primer. It teaches us about community, how to take care of each other, how to share and bring others your bounty, too. The garden offers so much reward in revision — if you mess up and course-correct, you have everything to gain: more blackberries! Tomatoes through October! As someone who teaches nature writing, I can tell you when I set my students to a writing task, I ask them (in so many words) to start with and from a place of love (for a body of water, the animal, the forest, the flower — whatever it is they are writing about). They write into that and THEN once you have done that, the reader is usually on board. And it’s easier to convince your reader to listen to solutions or to open their eyes that not everyone has had the same experiences outside. Again, I’d just suggest what I do for any good piece of writing. Start with the five senses. Knock us back to that time you first smelled a dried sand dollar when you were nine. Let us feel the bits of sand tap out of the lunules and into the palm of your hand.
As for delight: as a kid, I truly loved learning names of birds and flowers that my parents taught me (coreopsis! guava! moss rose!), and it still delights me now. Names are so important and I see a direct correlation between people who think nothing of making fun of a brown woman’s name (see: the video of Sen. Perdue making fun of Kamala Harris’s name; see: 60% of the people who first meet me). Knowing names correctly is everything; it’s a key to connection and tenderness and a turn to kindness. When you get to learn about an animal or plant, get to know their names, when you learn that there are birds out there who read the stars to fly home at night (indigo buntings), and how wondrous and lovely that is — maybe it might become harder to want to use a product that clogs up the sky with smog so these birds can’t see the stars? More hesitant to cut down trees where these birds live. And maybe if you knew a boy named Ramon likes to get his hair smoothed over before he sleeps by his mom Rosalia, who is undocumented and works in a chicken plant in Mississippi — maybe elected leaders wouldn’t be so quick to snitch and call ICE to separate them. And maybe, getting to know names might finally encourage more of us to ask how could anyone still commit an act of violence after really getting to know someone who doesn’t look/move/love like you?
I think for some people, reading about a brown woman who is actually happy in an essay or poem is still perceived as dangerous and even something to fear or get angry or jealous over. Distrust, even. I can’t pretend to know how or why that is, but I can guess that having a major lack of depicting Asian Americans in pop culture — like, in books, television, or movies — who aren’t suffering or buttoned up physically or emotionally for most of the ’70s and ’80s certainly didn’t help.
None of the plants or animals I loved observing asked me the dreaded “What Are You?” or asked “Where Are You Really From?” Someone (Toni Morrison??) said something like, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” But it’d be a mistake to think I was writing World of Wonders only for anyone who felt isolated from their communities. I’d like to think (dare I hope?) these essays are also for the people who were/are always part of the cool crowd, but who might’ve forgotten what it means to slow down and take in a bit of the outdoors too. I loved not having to worry about maintaining tension in linebreaks, as I take care to do in my poems, but rather — I could fully exhale. I absolutely felt like my shoulders relaxed and my sentences could fully unfurl. It was such a joy to have long and ebullient sentences — anyone who knows me personally knows it mimics how I actually speak when I get excited about a plant or animal I hadn’t known before. If even a fraction of that enthusiasm is contagious with my readers, that connection would make me so happy.
When I go on walks with my ten-year-old, even if it’s just a short 30-minute one, his pockets (and I confess, sometimes mine too) are filled with treasures: acorns, a red bead, a rock shaped like Florida, and bits of twig and leaves that most people are too busy to notice. This book is also for people who go through life with empty pockets — literally and figuratively — for those that forgot what it was like to be excited about other inhabitants of this planet.