Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poetry is meant to be read at mid-morning with a cup of coffee slowly warming your hands. It’s meant to be consumed outside, under the shade of a familiar tree, shielded from the scorching summer sun. Her words should join hands with the gurgle of a tumbling stream and the calls of loons, bringing with it something close to tranquility.
Nezhukumatathil, a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow of poetry, holds four collections of nature poetry to her name. Her words are poignant and witty, equally an ecological script and a reflection on her life experiences. A daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and South India, much of Nezhukumatathil’s writing is sprinkled with delightfully cordial vignettes of her cultural heritage. “World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments” is Nezhukumatathil’s first venture into the world of narrative nonfiction, accompanied with illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura.
“World of Wonders” reads like an extension of Nezhukumatathil’s poetry, filled with the same buttery descriptions and lingering sentences. “In flight, it is like a loud laugh, the kind that only appears in summer, with the stink of meats sizzling somewhere down the street, and the mouths of neighborhood children stained with popsicle juice and hinging open with the excitement of a ball game or tag,” Nezhukumatathil writes of fireflies. She has a nuanced view of our world, and her essays give us a glimpse into how our lives could be shaped by nature as well. Each essay focuses on a wondrous creature — the bird of paradise or vampire squid, for example — and each excerpt tugs at something hidden deep inside you, clamoring to break free.
Nezhukumatathil gives us just enough information about a creature or plant to draw us in, then stops, testing our curiosity. By weaving ecological descriptions into a story, we’re tempted to keep engaging and learning. It’s akin to eating a juicy slice of apple pie whose aftertaste makes it criminal not to reach for the knife again. After reading a chapter on axolotls, small baby-pink amphibians whose mouths curve into an eternal, tight-lipped smile, I scoured the internet for pictures of this cartoon-like creature with a compelling urgency, finally settling on the most precious one in my eyes.
As a woman of color, Nezhukumatathil brings a refreshing perspective on the environment. Her views of nature have been influenced by her cultural upbringing, and snippets that encompass her heritage are often the most gripping. She writes of how a racist elementary school teacher taught her to hate her favorite bird, the peacock, because it was the national bird of India. She offers advice on what to do in the face of racial insults: “If a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup, just remember the smile of an axolotl.” And she gives us the most vivid description of an Indian monsoon I’ve yet encountered: “If you could smell the wind off the wings of an ecstatic, teeny bat — if you could smell banana leaves drooping low and modest into the ruddy soil — if you could inhale clouds whirring so fast across the sky — that is what monsoon rain smells like.”
Despite the strength of her writing, some of Nezhukumatathil’s comparisons between nature and her life fall flat. An essay on narwhals, mysteriously shy creatures known as “unicorns of the sea,” is used as a tie to overt racism Nezhukumatathil faced during her years in Kansas. Yet, narwhals serve the example only because of their white skin color, making it easy to blend into a “sea of white,” and their long saber tooth which Nezhukumatathil wished she had as defense against racist encounters. Another chapter focuses on flamingos, but stretches to associate the dance of flamingos with the unwanted attention Nezhukumatathil received from older men when dancing at clubs as a college freshmen. These examples seem like a stretch to maintain a consistent focus on nature, and they read better without twisting the natural world to fit a narrative. By intertwining nature into every obstacle she’s faced, Nezhukumatathil’s examples come across as forced and unnecessary. The majority of essays, however, don’t fall into this trap.
The true gem in “World of Wonders” is Nezhukumatathil’s layered comprehension of the world around her. She sees a sea of abundance — an environment unbounded, too intricate and vast to ever understand completely. Yet, she implores us to try. “Maybe what we can do when we feel overwhelmed is to start small. Start with what we have loved as kids and see where that leads us,” she writes. She urges us to slow down, look up and breathe in. “And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth — perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet.”
This essay collection is meant for sharing, for collective laughs, for mutual discovery. It has a tendency to stick in your mind like the most resistant super-glue, no matter your age or background. “World of Wonders” is a witty, memorable take on nature essays, written by a woman of color who isn’t afraid to let her stories shine through. It’ll make you gaze out your window, craving more of that world.
Daily Arts Writer Trina Pal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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