How to Listen to Water

by Michelle Peñaloza | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. Aimee Nezhukumatathil reads at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 21 at McCaw Hall. 


Aimee Nezhukumatathil 
Copper Canyon Press, 2018

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s latest poetry collection, Oceanic, entices its readers to be “those who are willing to collect urchin and pearl.” Nezhukumatathil herself is a collector and curator of observations, facts, and wonder throughout her body of work. Nezhukumatathil has a keen appreciation and exuberance for both the natural world—her poems are full of scientific, biological facts, lush and quirky observations of such things like the history of the color of red, peacocks, bioluminescence, and jacaranda blooms—and the domestic (poems about pie and parenting and gardening and the suburbs). Nezhukumatathil is what some might call an “approachable poet.” Her diction is often straightforward and her subjects easily perceived. These are poems concerned with familial life and memory, multicultural identity, friendship, love, motherhood, and growing up. Her poems are often lyrical and narrative, sometimes hybrids of both. You might buy your non-poet mom an Aimee Nezhukumatathil collection and she might actually read and enjoy it.

Depending on taste and temperament, the descriptors “approachable” or “accessible” in The Poetry World can be jibes, (see the various praise/outrage around the phenomenon and commercial success of Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur). One could see how some curmudgeons might find Nezhukumatathil’s “accessibility” and subject matters all too earnest; however, I’d say: those people just need to get their lives right. Or, simply read Nezhukumatathil’s work closely. The craft of her approach—her surprising diction, the music of her lines, her playfulness with language, her facility with a variety of modes and traditions, her frolicsome description and rhetoric—invites her readers to enjoy and believe her work’s sincerity, sincerely. Or, maybe another way to say it: once, after a reading by Nezhukumatathil, a dear friend and fellow poet, whose opinions I hold in high esteem and who is curmudgeonly as hell, said, “Ayeeeee, those poems were tender as f*ck!”—a compliment I took as the highest praise. There is so much of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic I would classify as “tender as f*ck,” and I find myself in need of tenderness and accessibility these days.

Oceanic is Nezhukumatathil’s fourth full-length poetry collection and her best yet—one that demonstrates her mastery of sensory detail, prowess at synthesizing memories with insight, and her observations and impressive knowledge of the natural world. The book’s first poem, “Self-Portrait as Scallop,” begins the collection as a declaration of maturity:

Carry me         in the gobble of your beak.

I’d rather be set           like a jewel      in your nest

a sweet surprise           after the sun dissolves

into the Pacific           like a gold ghost

sugaring my coffee.                 By then I will have

opened up        to you. None of the eelgrass stories

I clung to         in my youth         are better than

this: I’m no longer          silent.     None of them         told me

if you were hungry enough—the small hinge

of my umbo     would creak and sigh.

The open syntax of the poem makes the reader takes her time. The enjambment works across the line and down the page to create a tension that complements the poem’s (and the whole collection’s) assertion of the poet’s wisdom, dedication to openness, and continued hunger to collect and learn. (Also, when have you read a poem in which the word “umbo” makes such a seamless appearance?)

The whole of Oceanic reads like a favorite record you put on and lie on the rug to listen to; you relish the whole experience, but you sit up and rest on your elbows when your favorite tracks strike up. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Mr. Cass and the Crustaceans,” plays like an origin story and analogy for the whole collection. (The poem title would also be a great band name—perhaps one the Cephalopod Appreciation Society would also appreciate). It begins, as many of Nezhukumatathil’s poems do, with stark image and fact and invitation:

Whales the color of milk have washed ashore
in Germany, their stomachs clogged full
of plastic and car parts. Image the splendor
of a creature as big as half a football field—

the magnificence of the largest brain
of any animal—modern or extinct. I have
been trying to locate my fourth grade
science teacher for years. Mr. Cass, who

gave us each a crawfish he found just past
the suburbs of Phoenix, before strip malls
licked every good desert with a cold blast
of Freon and glass. Mr. Cass who played

soccer with us at recess, who let me check
on my wily, snappy crawfish in the plastic
blue poll before class so I could place
my face to the surface of the water and see

if it still skittered alive. I hate to admit
how much this meant to me, the only brown girl
in the classroom. How I wish I could tell Mr. Cass
how I’ve never stopped checking the waters—

the ponds, the lakes, the sea. And I worry
that I’ve yet to see a sperm whale, except when
they beach themselves in coves. How many songs
must we hear from the sun-bleached bones

of a seabird or whale? If there was anyone on earth
who would know this, Mr. Cass, it’s you—how even
bottle caps found inside a baby albatross corpse
can make a tiny ribcage whistle when the ocean wind

blows through it just right—I know wherever you are,
you’d weep if you heard this sad music. I think
how you first taught us kids how to listen to water,
and I’m grateful for each story in its song.

I began with the intention to excerpt this poem, but the syntax, rhythm, and insights of “Mr. Cass and the Crustaceans” make me wish to share the poem in its entirety. I appreciate the complexity woven throughout what is a simple prospect: a poem describing the influence of a teacher and the lasting impressions of childhood experience. Nezhukumatathil complicates this narrative by deftly incorporating (through enjambment across regular, orderly quatrains) what it means to be seen (“the only brown girl / in the classroom”) and what responsibility we might have for our wonder, what it means to bear witness and locate the decay (and mourning) within splendor, and finally, what it means “to listen to water…for each story in its song.”

Within each song throughout Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic there is much to admire, so I’ll prioritize by offering you some (of my favorite) qualities and highlights of the collection:

  • You will learn so many facts! Salamanders use the stars to find their way home! The hagfish is the only fish without vertebrae! The star, Albireo, is actually two stars sixteen hundred light-years away!
  • It’s pretty funny. The collection’s two found poems, “One-Star Reviews of the Taj Mahal” (“The garden is also very basic. Everything is basic”) and “One-Star Reviews of the Great Wall of China” (“This is not an experience of a lifetime”), actually make me laugh out loud.
  • It’s pretty sexy, with poems like “When Lucille Bogan Sings ‘Shave ‘Em Dry'” (which if you’ve never heard it, you can listen to here; just FYI it’s definitely NSFW—as one YouTube commenter stated: “Before ‘Lil Kim there was Lucille Bogan”) and “The Two Times I Loved you the Most on a Farm,” which hinges on the line: “I didn’t know / love could be so loud.” Also, the poem, “Starfish and Coffee,” after the song of the same name by Prince, which begins, “Prince knows the sexiest meal of the day is breakfast— / the meal that separates the sexy from the selfish / after…a night where it doesn’t matter // which are arms or which are legs / or what radiates and how—only your centers stuck together.” Also, Prince.
  • Even with the facts, the humor, the sex—it’s still tender as f*ck. Tender and lush love appear in so many contexts and forms (and there are also a number of poetic forms and genres: haibun, ekphrasis, persona poem, aubade): between mother and child (across species—human, cockroach, whale shark), between lovers, between the keen and grateful observer of nature and the natural world.

For some (haters) in The Poetry World, being earnest is anathema and being “accessible” is to be one against the grain of discovery, a flattener of a nuance. Applied to Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poetry, “accessible” is what it means—able to be reached and entered—not in spite of innovative craft or discovery, but because of it. The world of Nezhukumatathil’s poetry, of Oceanic, is one of well-wrought openness, full of possibility for connection.



Michelle Peñaloza was born in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of immigrants, and grew up in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee. She is the author of two chapbooks: landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press, 2015) and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes (Organic Weapon Arts, 2015). Her poems and essays have been featured in Waxwing, Poetry Northwest, New England Review, Off Paper, VinylVerse Daily, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships from the University of Oregon, Kundiman, and the Richard Hugo House, awards from Literary Arts, 4Culture, and Artist Trust, and scholarships from VONA/Voices, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others. Michelle lives in rural Northern California.