These poems from the archives by Aimee Nezhukumatathil first appeared in Poetry Northwest in the Winter 2001-2002 issue of the journal.
Under Water, Behind Glass
At the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C.,
I wander around the basement maze of animals
(under water, behind glass) with the man
who was my first love. All the green-gray light,
the pink glow of the anemone, the white-tipped spikes
of the lion fish make his skin a color I can’t
even name. It’s been five years but still I know
the brush of his coat behind me, the cup
of his hand as we cross the street, his smell like trees.
We are silent most of the time, except for a few tugs
and nudges to look at this one! Check out these eyes!
Children with starfish-shaped lollipops drool
at the railing, smudge their wet noses on the tanks
of sea snakes and a lone octopus peeping back
at them from behind a boulder, one tentacle
unfurled as if asking for a lick. At the lobster exhibit
we read the light-up panes: “Lobsters line up
single file as far as the eye can see and walk
hundreds of feet to find their one mate.” And I know
what he is thinking. It is what I am thinking:
whether all this time and space has been our walk, our journey
to fit again into the last voices we hear at night.
But this is too easy. Right now, we are too much
in wonder—the next series of tanks show us how
on of the southern flounder’s eyes eventually migrates
to the other side of its flat head, till one side holds
both eyes, like a cartoon fish—the other side struck
blind to all of the wild diatoms in full bloom.
The Woman Who Turned Down a Date with a Cherry Farmer
Fredonia, New York
Of course I regret it. I mean there I was under umbrellas of fruit
so red they had to be borne of summer, and no other season.
Flip-flops and fishhooks. Ice cubes made of lemonade and sprigs
of mint to slip in blue glasses of tea. I was dusty, my ponytail
all askew and the tips of my fingers ran, of course, red
from the fruit-wounds of cherries I plunked into my bucket
and still—he must have seen some small bit of loveliness
in walking his orchard with me. He pointed out which trees
were sweetest, which ones bore double seeds—puffing out
the flesh and oh the surprise on your tongue with two tiny stones
(a twin spit), making a small gun of your mouth. Did I mention
my favorite color is red? His jeans were worn and twisty
around the tops of his boot; his hands thick but careful,
nimble enough to pull fruit from his trees without tearing
the thin skin; the cherry dust and fingerprints on his eyeglasses.
I just know when he stuffed his hands in his pockets, said
Okay. Couldn’t hurt to try? and shuffled back to his roadside stand
to arrange his jelly jars and stacks of buckets, I had made
a terrible mistake. I just know my summer would’ve been
full of pies, tartlets, turnovers—so much jubilee.
Why I Am Not Afraid of King Cobras
Forests equal fairies for a girl of eight.
What I did not equate was this was jungle,
just off the edge of coconut groves
and rubber trees, land where even my father
never ventured alone as a boy. But this
was vacation, time off from spelling tests
and fractions. All of a sudden I had grandparents
to buy me pieces of pink candy, and glass bangles
that clinked with each swing of arm. After dinner, I loved
to gouge the rubber trees with a stick, watch the plastic
ooze from each gash, roll the warm sap into a ball—
each bounce so high, I’d lose them in the last flicks
of sun. I had wandered further that day, deeper
in the groves where cinnamon and sweetleaf grew like weeds.
When I reached for a new stick, I saw him there, standing
in what I learned later is the Imperial pose—eye level,
his teeny tongue tasting the air for what I smelled of:
candy and glass. The ribs of his neck spread wide
as my father’s hand, then smoothed down, and I laughed—
he was suddenly small and naked, like he’d lost
his hat. We stood there for some time before I turned around
and went back inside to tell no one that just minutes before,
a girl and snake made their introductions—the birds overhead
holding their breath, the pierced trees bubbling at their bark.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of Miracle Fruit (2003); At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), winner of the Balcones Prize; Lucky Fish (2011); and Oceanic (2018). A book of illustrated nature essays, World of Wonder, is forthcoming from Milkweed. With Ross Gay she co-wrote the chapbook of epistolary nature poems, Lace and Pyrite (2014). She was the 2016-17 Grisham writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, where she is currently professor of English in the MFA program.