Wednesday, August 29, 2007


By Aimee Celino Nezhukumatathil

[First published in PINOY POETICS: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino-American Poetics, Editor Nick Carbo (Meritage Press, St. Helena and San Francisco, 2004)]

Okay, I’m cheating. “The Ocean at Night” is a title I wanted to use for a poem. I’ve scribbled it in my little Moroccan red-leather writer’s journal almost over a year ago now and still have not been able to use it. I’ve started many scraps of a poem with that title but it always seemed so fake, so forced somehow. My fascination with the ocean at night stems from a recent trip to the Bahamas—Nassau, to be exact—where I snorkeled and swam with stingrays for the first time. In the coconutty breeze rippling the surface of the water so I couldn’t see my toes quite as clear as I would have liked, I suddenly found myself alone (against the tour guide’s warnings) and had snorkeled and bubbled my way out to sea just a bit further than I should have:


At Coco Cay, I snorkel
               close to the buoys
                              that mark where They
               are not responsible for you
anymore & find myself
               in a school of blue and gold
                              skipjack fish. Nothing but
               luminous fishcolor, small bits
of ocean. The skipjacks
               surround me, don’t budge
                              unless I kick flippers. Would
               they be brave enough
to kiss me (they are known
               as kissing fish, pressing
                              their swollen blue lips
               to each other, a wall
of clams, aquarium glass)?
               A kite-shaped shadow
                              flies into focus a couple
               of yards away. Easy
to recognize the ray’s slide,
               the undulation of wing
                              over a helpless line
               of shrimp. Panic. I flipper
my way back till I’m within
               shouting distance of shore.
                              Tiny red seahorses glide in
               & out of the coral shrubs.
I want one to curl
               its ribbed tail around
                              my finger, a mermaid’s ring.
               The next time I press my hand
on my lover, he would feel
               the gallop. The cavalry is here.
Every neigh & wild whip of hair.

(originally published in Ratapallax)

Panic. Such an exhilaration and sudden high and heart slamming underneath my soggy swimsuit. I was hooked. I fell in love with that giant stingray, its wings wider than my arm span. There was no holding it, even if I tried. When I got back to the states I was hooked into reading and trying to find out just what kind of ray did I see (Southern). This notion of darkness underwater, even when it was daylight (and oh, the sun! So bright so loud it scorched my skin dark and papery thin) enthralled me. And I discovered this nocturnal ocean creature one night sitting in my office among a stack of extra large books—the kind the library has to store on a special shelf because they are too big to fit with all the other neat and tidy books. I like them best—big and bold, they make no excuses: rebel books.

The Vampire Squid. Vampyroteuthis infernalis. Literally, the vampire squid from hell. For it’s size, this particular squid has proportionally the largest eyes of any animal in the world. A six-inch specimen will have eyes that stretch across its gelatinous body, eyes about a whole inch-wide across, roughly the size of the eye of a Labrador Retriever. The largest eyes in the entire animal kingdom. I paused. When I was little, some neighborhood kids used to tease me about having eyes too big for my head. “Quarters!” they’d shriek as they sped away on their BMX bikes, referring to what they thought was the size of my eight year-old eyes. I closed the book. My new friend. My new kernel of an idea for a future poem.

And so it goes for most of my poems. I’d have to say 95% of them stem from an actual observation or experience (I know it’s not very fashionable to admit your poems are autobiographical, but there. I said it.) that led me to research something else entirely. And it never fails. Any time I set out to write a poem about one thing, it leads me to something completely unexpected. And oh, the rush, the sheer joy of playing with language, that leap or turn that seems to come out of nowhere, but most probably comes from some lavender fold in my brain, the place where I store file cabinets and file cabinets of arcane trivia and bizzaro bits of scientific fact. The book on insects of the tropic or the memoir of a sword swallower that I read last month may not garner a poem of tropical circus life right now, but later I know those pages will fit solid, fit square into a poem.

I subscribe to several scientific and nature magazines. I regularly browse my local half price bookstore for discount field guides, order seed catalogues (free!) even though I live in an apartment and I’d hear the stomp of my landlord’s muddy boots if I dared etch my own designs into his landscaping. Reading other poets and prose is important, sure. My creative writing teachers made no secret that we wouldn’t get anywhere if we didn’t know the work of our colleagues, or, as I looked at it, the seemingly golden ring of Published Poets. Otherwise, we wouldn’t know what else was out there and bound to repeat the same work, never try something new. But I find reading about the natural world is a minefield of poems waiting to be written. I’m in awe of the fact that we only know one tenth—that’s 10 percent, folks—of the world’s insect population. Imagine all the possibilities: in poems, in language, in colors we have yet to see exist.

In his poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” Robert Hass writes, “…a word is elegy for what it signifies.” For poets, that’s what I call a gauntlet thrown! That no matter how hard we try, no description, no magical arrangement of alphabets, of words strung like bugle beads—none of it can match the actual experience. That by merely describing the experience is to give it a sort of death sentence, keep it buried deep in the cloudy waters of the sea. But I disagree (if we don’t, why are we writing in the first place?). Some of the greatest trips and vacations I’ve ever taken have been not through some sparkling white cruise ship or counting the clicks of the tracks across a countryside, but through reading the glossy pages of my magazines and oversized photography books from the library. I may never swim with stingrays ever again, I may never come face to face with my beloved vampire squid hanging still and silent in the water column, but I can see them again and again in my poetry, and bonus—know even more about their astonishing bodies and behavior through further research.

An article in Scientific American described a relatively new discovery about the vampire squid: “…this strange animal has a bioluminescent organ at the tip of each of its arms that begins to pulse and glow, and when provoked, the arms begin to writhe. It becomes very difficult to tell one end of the vampire squid from the other. Then, it ejects a mucus, full of thousands of glowing spheres of blue bioluminescent light. When the light show ends, it’s difficult to tell if the squid has flown away in the dark, and if so, what direction, or if it merely faded into the lightless waters around it.” So many secrets spinning on this earth, flying quiet in the sea. So many poems that need to be written.


Aimee Celino Nezhukumatathil was born in 1974 in Chicago and is the author of At the Drive-In Volcano and Miracle Fruit, winner of the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in poetry and the Global Filipino Literary Award. She is associate professor of English at State University of New York, Fredonia.


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