by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Milkweed Editions, 2020, 165 pp.; $23 (hardcover)Buy Book
The axolotl is a pink amphibian with dark eyes, feathery gills, and a disarmingly human-like smile. One gazes serenely from the cover of World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, lovingly painted by illustrator Fumi Mini Nakamura and tucked in among a colorful collage of magnificent plants and animals, some familiar (flamingo, narwhal, monarch butterfly) and others unknown to me (potoo bird, ribbon eel, southern cassowary). The axolotl’s cryptic, pink, Mona Lisa smile amid this kaleidoscope of wild creatures is an irresistible lure inviting readers to pick up the book and behold the wonders held within.
World of Wonders is subtitled In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, and each of the brief essays that make up the collection is like a praise poem in prose form to one element of the natural world. Yet the essays go beyond admiration and gratitude for the plants and animals they feature. Each one intertwines information about the creature with stories from the author’s life, animal and plant becoming metaphor. A pink flamingo is long-legged dancing college girls, both Nezhukumatathil in the past and her students today. The ribbon eel, with its gaping, ecstatic expression, is her second son during his wide-awake and always-astonished early years. Other wild things serve as protectors, conveying their superpowers on Nezhukumatathil in her imagination. Large leaves of the catalpa tree are shields against the glaring Kansas sun and staring Kansas eyes. The cactus wren’s nest in a saguaro is a refuge from imagined dangers to a latch-key kid. The narwhal’s ability to dive deep creates for her an escape from a kid on the school bus who makes racist remarks about her Filipino mother. The thin, sweet smile of the axolotl becomes her tight smile in middle school, when a white girl dictates what shade of lipstick she can wear, and in adulthood, when a colleague subjects her to racist microaggressions.
Nezhukumatathil is first a poet (her collections of poetry are Oceanic, Lucky Fish, At the Drive-In Volcano, and Miracle Fruit), and her poetic sensibilities infuse the essays with metaphor, repetition, rhythm, and alliteration. Color, she writes, is “the hue and cry of joy.” The flamingo’s dance “is legs akimbo, spindle-stick and joint-backward steps from all you know.” She begins an essay about the potoo bird, “In Mississippi, summer means mosquito. It also means tomatoes, means mosquito, means peaches, means humidity, means strawberries, and means mosquito. Mostly mosquito.”
Like the axolotl, Nezhukumatathil’s writing is bright, colorful, and utterly charming. Yet also like the axolotl, it has a darker side. Of that clawed creature she writes, “And when it eats—what a wild mess—when it gathers a tangle of bloodworms into its mouth, you will understand how a galaxy learns to spin in the dark, and how it begins to grow and grow.” When she takes us from “wild mess” to spinning galaxies in the space of one sentence we know we are in deft hands. Nezhukumatathil herself spins galaxies in these essays, forming planets of wonder, moons of humor, suns of courage, and whole constellations of heartbreak. Tucked amid astonishing details about the axolotl is this sad fact: it’s extinct in the wild; one of its natal lakes was drained, the other overrun with carp. In another example of this embracing of beauty, humor, and heartbreak, in the essay “Peacock,” she describes the cry of eponymous bird as “cats being dragged over thumbtacks” and tells of the time that her ecstatic work of drawing a peacock in “a sea of bright teal and purple” crayon was interrupted by the teacher. “Some of us will have to start over and draw American animals. We live in Ah-mer-i-kah!” the teacher intones, singling out Nezhukumatathil, who had fallen in love with the bright birds on a visit to her father’s homeland of India the previous summer.
In a book where the essays often range over decades, from the author’s childhood in the 1980s to the present time, Nezhukumatathil’s two children and the concerns of motherhood pop in and out of the narrative, their presence becoming more frequent in the second half of the book. Sometimes they make brief appearances, as when she and her husband stand in line with two little boys, waiting to see a blooming corpse flower at the botanic gardens. In others they play a more central role. “Calendars Poetica” covers Nezhukumatathil’s first year of motherhood in one brief entry per month, capturing bursts of energy and bleary-eyed sleepiness, blooming clematis and handwritten letters, poetry readings and garden pests, her son’s first snow angel and his first steps.
In “Whale Shark,” Nezhukumatathil’s humor comes to the fore as she contemplates her own mortality while floating in a tank of sharks: “I could picture it so clearly: my then two-year-old son would never even remember me, would be haunted forever by the loss of his mother, the first known casualty of being accidentally gummed to bits by a gentle whale shark.” In “Cara Cara Orange” she explores the relationships of mothers and daughters and grandmothers and grandsons through bites of sweet, exquisite citrus. In “Octopus,” she and her boys explore a beach in Greece while waiting for a chance to see an octopus up close, an encounter that ends in tragedy for the octopus.
One of the most moving pieces in the collection is called “Questions while Searching for Birds with my Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day, Oxford, MS.” It’s structured as a series of stand-alone questions and comments without dialogue tags or narration, as the children’s observations about the difference in plumage between a male and female cardinal lead into a discussion of camouflage, race, school shootings, extinction, and death: “Will you be missing when I’m fifty? Will you be missing when I’m sixty?” her son asks, in the way children have of zeroing in on their parents’ worst fears. Yet as the conversation delves into deeper and darker subject matter, Nezhukumatathil manages to leaven it ever so slightly by slipping into the list of more challenging queries one repeated question that all parents can relate to: “Is there a bathroom nearby?”
Nezhukumatathil concludes the collection with a paean to wonder itself: “It takes a bit of patience, and it takes putting yourself in the right place at the right time. It requires that we be curious enough to forgo our small distractions in order to find the world.” She laments the demise of both fireflies and the time when children played outside until dark, rather than turning to their screens. She once again slips into the mantle of one of the magnificent creatures she profiles: the southern cassowary, which, in addition to lethal claws, a horny “casque” on top of its head, and a “carnival in the jungle” appearance, has a vocalization that falls below the range of human hearing but that is reported to be felt in the bones. Nezhukumatathil imagines sending out these “boom” calls as a warning and a cease-and-desist order to all who would despoil the wild world: Boom. Boom. Boom! Judging by the runaway success of this best-selling and prize-winning collection of essays, I think her call is being heard.