In Oceanic, her luminous fourth collection of poems, Aimee Nezhukumatathil concludes with the image of “a child stepping / out of a fire, shoes / still shiny and clean.”
I encountered this mysterious image on a day in mid-February, 2018. As the temperature hovered at a record-smashing seventy degrees, I re-read the poem, both terrified and comforted by this strange, fire-surviving child. I had opened all the windows of my house. A breeze blew through, smelling of wet earth and decomposing leaves, ushering in the sounds of the sirens and sparrows. In that moment, divisions dissolved between outside and inside, natural and unnatural, human and animal.
This boundary-blurring moment was fitting, because in Oceanic Nezhukumatathil insists, gently and fiercely, that we human beings are inextricable from the rest of the world. I find that I must read Oceanic as both a defiant love letter to wildness, and as a warning: unless we fully understand and embrace this interdependence, we will not be able to save ourselves nor the planet from the destruction toward which we are headed.
The poems acknowledge that this is no easy task. We live in a racist, capitalist society that can only exist if we are kept separate from each other and the natural world. To survive—as the child does in Oceanic’s final poem, “Bengal Tiger”—we must transform how we understand power, the boundaries of self, and love. “Bengal Tiger” collapses the categories of human and nonhuman, body and planet; its muscular, visceral images bleed from one into the next through quick, enjambed lines:
Each sun sinks itself
in my mouth.
Every thicket has
a secret and
every mighty beast
has a soft underside.
A chambered fist
calls to me from
the other side
of this planet.
Your heart is the size of your fist; a tiger’s heart can call you from clear across the world. And many many suns can sink in our mouths. In this reality, we are not separate from each other nor the sentient and non-sentient beings of this planet. The poem invites us to remember a time when we were one with our environment: our birth-mothers’ bodies, the amniotic fluid we swam in, the beating of her heart. When we were not an “I,” she was not a “she,” and the world was not an “it.” We were the world. The world was us. If we can tap back into that sense of wholeness—then, perhaps, we can emerge from fire unsinged.
In this poem and throughout Oceanic, Nezhukumatathil upends conventional notions of both what power looks like and what safety means. For her, the natural forces human beings have long regarded as dangerous—tigers, snakes, lava—can be sources not just of power but also of safety. For instance, she imagines a new Tarot card, the Daughter, who “imparts her bravery to those / who are willing to collect urchin / and pearl.” Only those who are ready to dive into the depths of the sea, to face there both the danger and the wonder of the underwater world, can access the Daughter’s power. Tellingly, this power is “oceanic, the rupture /of pillow lava on the seafloor.” If you don’t know what pillow lava is—and I didn’t until I watched some YouTube videos—imagine fiery, sparking, sputtering seams of the earth’s crust erupting underwater: a dramatic melding of fire, water, and earth, of disruption and creation, and of softness and sharpness all in one moment.
So, Nezhukumatathil tells us, if you tap into this elemental power and seek “to understand and accept the more salty aspects / of yourself, you might grow another arm or leg, / pointing at your truest love.” In other words, connecting with our wild ocean self might mean losing the stability of our human form but growing our ability to love more completely. The effort it takes to wrestle with “all the many hard / and wondrous ways you are loved” is part of the path to “such wonderment and safety.” Safety comes not by hiding away from the difficulties of love and the fearsomeness of nature, but by opening ourselves to the whole of the strange, grotesque, and dangerous world. We must love it fully because it is us, we are it, and we cannot be anything else.
Living in such a wide-open state of love and wonder is not easy—especially when you are a brown girl for whom “barbed wire and a gumbo-limbo tree /call you home.” As in Nezhukumatathil’s past collections, Oceanic grapples with the lived experience of being a woman of color in a racist society—and enacts poetic resistance to a white supremacist culture that dictates the terms of beauty and power, defines how much wildness is acceptable, and prescribes who is allowed to call what space “home.” The poet’s tools of resistance are consistent with her interest in how the power and fate of human beings and animals are merged. As a mixed-race femme who has experienced and witnessed the ways that people of color in general—and women of color in particular—are expected to dull our brightness, our loudness, and our very color, I took great pleasure in the joyous defiance of “In Praise of My Manicure.” By the end of the poem, the speaker’s “brown arms” with their fingernails of “glittered stars” turn into two snakes that take on the ability to protect her heart, because “A snake heart can slide up and down the length of its body / when it needs to.” Nezhukumatathil rejects Christian culture’s revulsion of the snake as evil and reclaims it as a symbol of safety and resistance, an instructor of survival. When we as people of color must be ever vigilant of our hearts, constantly on guard in a society that threatens not just our lives but also our joy, it is supremely useful to think of how we might slide our hearts out of reach of danger to declare, with this poet, “You’ll never be able to catch my pulse, my shine.” In many ways, Nezhukumatathil’s poems are like the ocean on a calm day: glittering, lovely, and eminently accessible on the surface. However, if you venture deeper into them they ask for all the dexterity and courage you can muster. The poet reminds her readers that as human beings of all races and genders, we must stay open to the world. We must forge connections with other humans and the nonhuman—and remain vulnerable. If we cannot do so, we cannot be truly safe. I keep returning to an early image in the book where human-caused destruction and its perverse beauty exist in a delicate, heartbreaking balance:
bottle caps found inside a baby albatross corpse
can make a tiny ribcage whistle when the ocean wind
blows through it just right . . .
The whistle of the ocean wind forces our attention to the bottle caps that have killed the baby bird (and to the fact that ninety percent of seabirds in the world now consume plastic). Nezhukumatathil will not let us look away or cover our ears to block out “this sad music.” She seems to say that if we are unwilling to do this work, to take these risks of perception, we are in grave danger of losing this wondrous world she lovingly reveals to us here, poem by poem.
Only by encompassing the whole of lived experience—the vast wonderment of the world and the inescapable horror caused by our destructiveness—can we take the actions we need to take. We cannot save what we love, unless we understand in our bones what it is we love—and, more profoundly, that in important ways we are not separate from what we love.
Perhaps it is too late for such actions. Already, millions of people around the world are dying and being displaced by the effects of climate change such as drought, floods, and wildfires. Already, ocean life is disappearing at a terrifying rate. That child who steps out of the fire unscathed at the end of Oceanic is, after all, part of a fable. But Nezhukumatathil isn’t giving up—and she demands that her readers don’t give up either. She insists we must be alive and attuned to the wonder and to the horror of the world. If we are to shift the current trajectory leading us to planetary disaster, we must gather up our pillow-lava power. We must use our vast capacity to love in the most beautiful and strange ways to bring a new future into being.