At The Drive-In Volcano by Aimee Nezhukumatathil: A Review
reviewed by Howard Miller
In "Invention of the Monsters," Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes the elaborate wig of a Yemeni bride, "the whorl of egg-stiffened/ braids, loops of red ribbon, gold seedbeads"; once fastened into place, the bride experiences sharp pains in her scalp and learns that her sister, jealous of her happiness, has sneaked a scorpion under the wig. This complex interplay of richness and joy with pain and suffering is characteristic of her work and is one of the themes that runs through her new collection At The Drive-In Volcano (Tupelo Press, 2007). In "Fugu Soup Blues," the porcupine fish is described as "the most delicious / of all fishes," but is also so poisonous it "can kill thirty men," and when it's consumed, "every pin prick / of white pain just adds more flavor." In "Take the Moly Flower," the speaker warns her lover that no charms will protect him from the intensity of her passion because she "will curl around you like / a pistol shrimp," a predatory shrimp that stuns then devours its prey, and in the title poem of the collection, Nezhukumatathil, after hearing the story of a "rasta man" who fell into the caldera of the La Soufriere volcano in St. Lucia, proposes to her new husband that they "be remarried in fire" by doing so themselves.
While this theme is only one of those to be found in Nezhukumatathil's second book, the idea of the complexity, the rich multiplicity of the world and of life, is fundamental to her work as a whole. Possibly, in part at least, that idea has come to her as a legitimate inheritance: She is, after all, the daughter of an Indian father and a Filipino mother and was born and grew up in the United States; that complicated and confusing family history formed the basis of much of the work in her first book Miracle Fruit (Tupelo Press, 2003), which won the Tupelo Press Judge's Prize in Poetry and the Forward Magazine Poetry Book of the Year Award. There are several poems in At The Drive-In Volcano which also draw on her family background; one which particularly illustrates the focus on abundance is "Origin of the Mango," in which she retells the competing stories of the mango's origin in India and in the Philipines, tales which serve only to enhance the mango's richness and its attractiveness by virtue of which it draws her parents "together even more."
But the new book focuses less on her family and more on Nezhukumatathil herself, particularly in two sequences, one dealing with a failed romantic relationship and the second with her marriage. Her work, however, is not really confessional per se; rather, she is more interested in exploring emotional and mental states than in recounting autobiography, In "If You Take the Fins Off a Shark," for instance, through a series of animal metaphors (animals are a frequent subject for her), she portrays the helplessness of animals stripped of necessary parts -- the shark of its fins, the octopus of its suckers -- to reveal how her former lover feels when he calls her and hears only his own voice, not hers. In "First Anniversary, With Monkeys," she describes how she and her new husband become lost visiting a nature preserve but goes on to show that
I don't mind. Eventually you turn us back to a place
not on any map, but I know I can trace it back with my finger
if we ever need it again. We made it one year
without a compass and we're not about to start now.
In both cases, she is primarily concerned with tracing the contours of common experience, and the same is true with the poems in both of these two sequences.
However, even these sequences make up only two of the five sections of At The Drive-In Volcano; the other portions of the volume again illustrate the ideas of abundance in the variety of subjects. There are, for instances, poems which are in part character sketches, such as "Marie Laveau, Queen of Voodoo" and "The Woman Who Eats Soil," poems dealing with unusual animals such as "Bee Wolf" and "Planaria," an ekphrastic poem, and poems which are elegies for River Phoenix and Cecilia Zhang, Similarly, there is a variety of poetic forms; while much of her work is in free verse, there are two loosely-treated villanelles (appropriately for a form with rather obsessive repetition, both are found among the poems dealing with her failed relation), a loose blank-verse sonnet, several haibun, prose poems, some "spatter" poems scattered across the page, and a number of free-verse poems which employ structured stanzas such as couplets, triplets, and quatrains as well as alternating stanzas of differing lengths (3 and 2 lines, for instance).
Finally, Nezhukumatathil's work manifests abundance in yet another manner, in terms of its aural richness; she creates phrases and lines which are highly textured in terms of their sonics. For instance, the short " i" sounds in the following passage from "Invention of the Monsters" serve to tie these lines together as well as providing an attractive music:
the catfish skimming the bottom
grow six feet long, their whiskers
the only swish the men see
when they search the silt floor
for a missing girl.
There are, of course, other repetitions on a smaller scale within the passage that add to the effect, as well. Similarly, she uses the short "e" sound in this passage from "Devil's Tongue":
This flower sells worse than a rotten chef salad.
This flower is never a sideshow at a festival --
The "f" and "s" sounds also contribute to the effect here. In the opening lines of "The Summer of No Smiles," both the long " i" and the "p" sounds weave together in the same way:
There was a time when even white parrots
would step away from me when I walked
past them in a pet shop. Once, before
a drive-in movie played . . . .
Her attention to the aural element provides a solid sonic scaffolding for her work.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a talented young poet, and At The Drive-In Volcano is a fine collection of her work that's worth the investment for anyone who enjoys skillful-crafted poetry.