Book Review: Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

As part of my reading rotation, I randomly stick volumes of poetry into the stack. When we have our local Friends of the Library book sale, I usually pick up several authors I’ve never heard of before because the price point is pretty good. Two bucks isn’t a lot to lose on potentially bad poetry and even the worst collections have some lines in them. You have to mine them like diamonds. It can be hard work, but finding a line that changes you is worth it for both the reader and the writer.

Strangely enough, I found a copy of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish tucked in with my reference books. I’m not quite sure what my past self was thinking and this is the glory of my life. It’s always an adventure.

Photo “Mermaid Tail” by Ellen Yeast, Cover design by Howard Klein

The cover of Lucky Fish is quite beautiful which is most likely why I picked it up at a sale. The contrast of stark white with the iridescence of the fish’s tail is enchanting. It was clever to have the author’s name first, in the colors of the fish, and the title of the book in white nestled on the tail of the fish. I like clever things, a lot.

This collection of poetry is sectioned into three parts: A Globe is Just An Asterisk, Sweet Tooth, and Lucky Penny. Each of the mini collections within are uniquely of the writer, yet their tones and meanings are very different. I am unsure if it was the writer’s intention but the reader goes on a metamorphosis with her in the most subtle of ways. In each section, I had a few favorite poems which are to be expected. The overall effect of the book is expansive in its travels, but tender in small secrets.

Part 1: A Globe is Just An Asterisk

This part is filled with exotic places the author has traveled, places some of us can only dream of and will never see, but she does a great job of capturing their essence. The poems in here are filled with learning other cultures and how these different sights and smells change the integrity of the author. Have you ever traveled someplace magnificent and enjoyed yourself only to find that the deeper meaning of the trip comes after when you slowly take in everything, when it settles into your bones. These are those poems.

My favorite poem from this group is the opener, The Secret of Soil:

“The secret of soil is that it is alive–
a step in the forest means
you are carried on the back
of a thousand bugs. The secret

I give you is on page forty-two
of my old encyclopedia set.”

Part 2: Sweet Tooth

All of the poems in this section come from the writer’s memory of being a child, of her family, and her interaction with the world. As children we often don’t understand the importance of things we see, life is more basic than that. When we get older, we lose that sense of wonder where everything we come in contact with is something to behold in amazement. Life piles on us and we forget to find joy in small things. This section was poignant for me as I near the middle of my life. I look back and wish I would have stayed a little longer, enjoyed those moments that seemed to stop time and stretch into forever. 

My favorite poem of this section was one about her relationship with her father called Mosquitoes:

“Standing there in our driveway with him,
I smacked my legs, my arms, and my face
while I waited for him to find whatever pinhole
of light he wanted me to see. At night, when I washed

my face, I’d find bursts of blood and dried bodies
slapped into my skin. Complaints at breakfast about
how I’d never do it again, how I have more homework
now, Dad.”

Part 3: Lucky Penny

For a woman who chooses to have a child, the birth of that being is something that changes her forever. You might tell yourself you will retain all that adventure and cunning you had before they are born, but there is an evolution that comes over you when you realize that you have created another human. Your body knows just what to do even when you don’t. This section is about the birth of her first child and how it morphs her view of the world, how it takes everything that has come before in the first two sections and turns it into a lexicon for her new life. It’s possible that being a mother myself had me aligned with many poems in this section, or just that life looks a little more precious now in these pandemic times. I typically am not a fan of poetry that journeys beyond a single page. I like my poetry crips and metaphorical and to the point, but her five page poem called Birth Geographic was something to behold:

“Because I know talk like this frightens you, I will say this only once: If I am
ever lost or someone ever wonders if the cause of my death is by my own
hand–let it be known that I will never leave you one my own accord. Never. If someone takes me, I will scratch and bite until I gargle soil. My mouth will be an angry mouth if anyone rips me from you. The center of my hands boiled with blossoms when we made a family. I would never flee that garden. I swear to you hear and now: If I ever go missing, know that I am trying to come home.”

This book was published by Tupelo Press out of North Adams, Massachusetts in 2011. You can visit their website here. If any of my local friends would like to read this book, please let me know. It can use a good home.

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