The Beauty of Belonging: Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders
Reviewed by Jessica Gigot
Milkweed Editions | 2020 | 184 pages
In World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, Aimee Nezhukumatathil sings praise and scours old wounds in this vivid and provocative essay collection. As an accomplished poet and English professor, Nezhukumatathil is already a well-known voice in contemporary poetry. Now, in this first book of prose, she explores the roots of her own ecopoetic sensibilities and the formative flora and fauna that have shaped her identity as a writer, mother, and daughter of a Filipino mother and Malayali Indian father navigating life in America.
The poet Joy Harjo writes, “It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf.” Nezhukumatathil demonstrates how she has come to understand the world and her life through deep inquiry of astonishments, like comb jellies, narwhals, and dragon fruit. She explains, “It is this way with wonder: it takes a bit of patience and it takes putting yourself in the right place at the right time.” Creatures big and small have offered instruction as well as consolation during periods of displacement and episodes of discrimination in her life and Nezhukumatathil’s thirst for the unknown, and sometimes unexplainable, is contagious.
These essays jump around in time, placing Nezhukumatathil at various ages in Kansas, Arizona, Ohio, New York, and eventually Mississippi, a home she describes as her “new geography.” In the first essay (“Catalpa Tree”), we encounter the ecology and physiology of this large, deciduous tree—its “creamy blossoms” and giant leaves that could “cover my entire face if I ever needed them again.” She elaborates:
“On campus, when I pass the giant catalpa tree, I think of that shy sixth grader who was so nervous when people stared. But then I remember the confident clickety-clack of my mother’s heels as she walked home from work with me and my sister—when people would stare at us but my mother didn’t seem to mind or notice.”
The catalpa tree, like her mother, is a recurring character in her life and also a gateway to sensorial memory, the “confident clickety-clack” of heels. A sound, she later writes, that she now makes as she walks to class. The beautiful seamlessness between mother and daughter, giant tree and place, shyness and safety, illuminates the potent transfiguration found within these essays.
Wherever she lands, Nezhukumatathil roots herself firmly within the natural world and her revelations are as invigorating as her anger. In “Peacock” she recounts an experience in elementary school when she drew a peacock, a familiar image throughout her house, for an assignment. Reprimanded by her teacher for not choosing an “American animal,” she is humiliated in front of the class and asked to redo the assignment. Later in that chapter, she asserts, “My favorite color is peacock blue,” which reads as a long-overdue primal scream decorated with the distinct humor and grace found throughout her poetry.
The essay “Questions While Searching For Birds With My Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day in Oxford, MS,” which almost reads like a poem, is a list of questions from her sons that range from “Can I have good camouflage even though I am mixed?” to “What happens if there is a bird count when I am 40 and we don’t find any birds?” Nezhukumatathil’s concerns as a mother are subversively revealed through this tender list and the gaping absence of any response leaves room for the reader to digest their significance.
Interestingly, Nezhukumatathil’s own profuse questions throughout this collection are just as piercing. Of the potoo, a fascinating, well-disguised bird found in Central and South America, she asks, “Like the potoo, I grew up wanting to blend in—in my case, with my blond counterparts—and why would I know anything else? I felt most seen in my childhood not by any television shows or movies but rather when I was in the outdoors, in forest or fields, by lake or ocean.”
From childhood to her life as a poet and professor, these essays largely focus on the sobering and diminishing experience of othering which Nezhukumatathil has encountered throughout her entire life. Remarkably, these essays are also bursting with examples of fierce mothering in the face of oppression as exemplified by Nezhukumatathil’s own mother, portraits of the author at various stages of motherhood, and the act itself of caring enough to notice this long, diverse list of natural phenomena. Nezhukumatathil’s resiliency, and her constant ability to find beauty and connection in the world, is perhaps the real astonishment.
The poet Camille Dungy writes, “For years, poets and critics have called for a broader inclusiveness in conversations about ecocriticism and ecopoetics, one that acknowledges other voices and a wider range of cultural and ethnic concerns.” World of Wonders is a response to that call for inclusiveness and a poignant reminder that the voices gently referred to as “new” in environmental writing have been here doing the work for decades and they demand a broader audience. Nature writing has largely been a white enterprise; however, Nezhukumatathil’s point of view clears a path to redemption—one in which we acknowledge that we all belong (and are accountable) to each other as well as to this strange and wonderous Earth.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, teacher, and musician. She has a small farm in Bow, Washington called Harmony Fields that makes artisan sheep cheese and grows organic herbs. Her second book of poem, Feeding Hour, is forthcoming from Trail to Table Press (November 20, 2020). Her writing appears in several publications such as Orion, Taproot, Gastronomica, The Hopper, and Poetry Northwest.