Manila, July 19, 2003 By Alfred A. Yuson (STAR) I regret that I’ve only found time recently to do justice to a book of poetry that had me stunned from page one. In this case, doing justice means to rave about it. The book is Miracle Fruit by Fil-Indian-American Aimee Nezhukumatathil, published early this year by Tupelo Press of Dorset, Vermont.
I received a copy a couple of months back, and have spent all this time savoring its wondrous contents, as the latest significant triumph of our poets and writers abroad. The author happens to be a member of the flips e-group, so that an announcement about this debut book first appeared in an e-mail posting. Having somehow corresponded directly with her in the past, I gathered up the gumption to request for a review copy. The blurbs, including one from US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, had intrigued me.
Author and publisher were up to the task, so that shortly the book arrived by airmail. The day I opened it upon receipt, my eyes fell upon the first poem, "One Bite," from where the title comes.
"Miracle fruit changes the tongue. One bite,/ and for hours all you eat is sweet. Placed/ alone on a saucer, it quivers like it’s cold/ from the ceramic, even in this Florida heat.// Small as a coffee bean, red as jam –/ I can’t believe. The man who sold/ it to my father on Interstate 542 had one/ tooth, one sandal, and called me/ ‘Duttah, duttah.’ I wanted to ask what/ is that, but the red buds teased me/ into our car and away from his fruit stand./ One bite. And if you eat it whole, it softens/ and swells your teeth like a mouthful/ of mallow. So how long before you lose/ a sandal and still walk? How long/ before you lose the sweetness? "
Now, as an occasional horticulturist, of course I found my interest not only pricked, but thoroughly whetted this side of sweetness. I knew the poem was about the so-called Miracle Fruit Tree, a species indigenous to West Africa, and a relatively recent addition to our collection of flora exotica. I had gifted myself a couple of Christmases back with a prized seedling acquired from Philippine STAR columnist Domini Torrevillas, which lovingly nurtured specimen has now grown, if ever so slowly, to some three feet high in our backyard.
Literature from Domini’s Farm (call 631-1466) provides the following info: "It contains a protein known as ‘miraculin,’ which tickles the tongue’s receptors. Food lovers and diabetics use the fruit to enhance their food." So what the poem recounts is true. A bite from the fruit renders the next meal, even of sinigang, sweet to the tongue.
A week before I received Miracle Fruit the book, our small tree had blossomed and borne its first fruits. Ah, Goethe’s selective affinities, the poetry garden’s consanguinities. The dance of the universe and all that.
It also proved fortuitous that for much of that day I had to spend time in the back seat of a van coursing through tedious traffic in Metro Manila. I brought the book along and proceeded to indulge myself in reverse fashion, that is, starting with that back-cover blurb, among several others, from the highly credible Collins: "Aimee Nezhukumatathil is able to handle serious subjects with the lightest of touches. Her edgy humor and keen eye keep her poems buoyant and fresh."
Each poem I read nearly had me swooning. The more I indulged in backseat pleasure, the more I was convinced that here was a miracle voice in poetry, still so young and, indeed, fresh, and yet so assured, with fine touches manifesting mastery of tropes and other tricks not exactly played by the book. Each poem induced minor to major ejaculation. Honest.
Flipping the pages at random, I came upon what has become a favorite, "Making Gyotaku": "In Osaka, fishermen have no use for the brag,/ the frantic gestures of length, blocks of air// between their hands. They flatten their catch/ halfway into a tray of sand, steady// the slick prize. The nervous quiver/ of the artist’s hands over the fish – washing it// with dark ink, careful not to spill or waste,/ else feel the wrath of salty men at sea.// It is a good print, the curves and channels of each scale/ will appear as tidy patterns to be framed and hung// in the hallway of his house. But perhaps the gesture/ I love most —- before the pressing of rice paper over/ inked fish, before the gentle peel away of the print/ to show the fish’s true size -— is the quick-light stroke// of the artist’s thumb, how deftly he wipes away/ the bit of black ink from the fish’s jelly eye –// how he lets it look back from the wall at the villagers,/ the amazed staring back at the amazed."
Wonderful. Precise, delicate strokes mirroring the subject, which is the inking and graphic printing of fish on rice paper as conducted by the redoubtably crafts-y Japanese. I am reminded of the word ekphrasis conjured up from the Greeks by the poet Eileen Tabios – to refer to poetry or any writing I suppose that glorifies a parallel art, primarily visual.
Here the poet’s deft touch, her own "quick-light stroke(s)," rise to the topic’s occasion, as an enhancing equation. Gestural is the very approach to clear-eyed documentation and marvel. The imagery of the real is poised delicately against quiet phraseology that still partakes of freshness, as with "salty men of the sea." And then that final line, "the amazed staring back at the amazed." How strongly it caps the seemingly matter-of-fact recounting of a quaint process of everyday art that is as practical as it is primal.
Then there’s a prose poem, "Crow Joy," that is entirely superb in its rendering of minute detail, interspersed with the careful/carefree parallelisms inherent in effective metaphor, as microcosm of a larger universal question: How high is too high, how precious is the precious that creatures of simple comfort cannot be aware of human regard for adornment?
"Almost all of the gold leaf on the Kremlin domes was scratched off years ago from the fleet of crows converging at the top. Contrary to popular belief, they were not stealing the shiny flakes for their nests, as they would a lovely kerchief pinned too loose on a clothesline, or withered breadfruit left too long in sun. A closer look revealed their game of sliding down those onion domes, their claws scraping the roofskin raw. In sunlight, crow wings flash a wild blue, as blue as the nose of a jolly mandrill. Half a world away, a family of these monkeys dips their fingers into a stream for the first time – their black fingernails dulled square for scratching stems to drink, their noses wet, warm. A shopkeeper near the Lobnoye Mesto, The Place of Skulls, once recorded distressed crow calls to scare the birds from their play. But the top was too high or the tape too quiet – the birds’ feet already too gilded to ever want to step foot on this earth again."
This poem was selected by Luisa Igloria, herself a poet of distinction, as one of her 10 choices for a book that’s in the works in Manila: 7 X 10: World Poetry Choices by Seven Filipino Poets. I think it’s (promotionally) appropriate to quote a part of Luisa’s essay as a measure of appreciation for Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poetry.
"… I’ve chosen ‘Crow Joy’… for its love of colors and textures, for its intuitive understanding of how even the most apparently uncomely creature (crow, mandrill, or other) is magnetized by opulence and loveliness. Some would say, what a myth, what an extravagance – to gild the domes of buildings with gold leaf, only to have this wealth scratched off by the careless feet of birds. Perhaps so, but only from a certain point of view. In the view of this prose poem, which I would say is the view of all poems that profess to poetry, our lives should always be so gilded; poetry, synonymous with beauty and loveliness, should be so necessary that if poetry or beauty were absent or banished from our lives, we too would never ‘want to step foot on this earth again.’"
Marvelous. Thanks, Luisa.
In subsequent correspondence with Aimee, whose surname understandably provokes a double-take, as in, "Eh, wot?" – she has let on that her friends simply call her Aimee Nez, to preempt improbably correct pronunciation, let alone spelling.
Born in Chicago in 1974 of a Filipina mother and an Indian father, she has a BA in English and an MFA in poetry and creative non-fiction from Ohio State University. She had previously authored a chapbook, Fishbone, and was the Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin. Presently she serves as assistant professor of English at the State University of New York, Fredonia.
Miracle Fruit was selected by Gregory Orr for the Tupelo Press Judge’s Prize in Poetry. It is available on Amazon.com, in Barnes and Noble stores and some "independent bookstores" in the US I wish it would soon become available here in Manila, for the benefit of our young and old poets alike who might do well to share in the gifts proffered by this impressive new voice that is Aimee Nez’s.
Another back-cover endorser, Alice Fulton, has this to say of the collection: "[Her] delightful poems celebrate the glories of the tongue, in both senses of the word. I can think of no other poet – except Neruda – who has inscribed the sensual world with such accurate charm... Aimee Nezhukumatathil understands the loving and funny relations between mother and daughter. She understands the folkways of India and Ohio, and she might be the only American poet who can swear in Tagalog. Her poems are seriously delicious: Toothsome and saucy, wise and mischievous."
Yes, Aimee has at least a couple of poems that may be said to be Philippine-based. "Fishbone" starts out by recounting a curious facet of that mother-daughter relationship: "At dinner, my mother says if one gets stuck/ in your throat, roll some rice into a ball/ and swallow it whole. She says things/ like this and the next thing out of her mouth// is did you know Madonna is pregnant?/ But I want to ponder the basket of fried smelt/ on the table, lined with paper towels to catch/ the grease —- want to study their eyes// like fat soda, wonder how I’m supposed/ to eat them whole. Wonder why we can’t/ have normal food for breakfast like at Sara’s house –/ Cheerios…"
Another poem, titled "Stealing Song," offers the following epigraph: "’WELCOME TO THE PHILIPPINES, THE ONLY CATHOLIC COUNTRY IN ASIA! (beware of pickpockets)’ – billboard outside Metro Manila." Its serpentine arrangement starts thus: "We dupe you kindly:/ an extra letter silk-screened/ on stacks of T-shirts/ in the Los Santos markets." And it ends in this (very) wise: "We wish you dreams/ of sweet tomato and platters/ of pig heads, mouths open, saying ah and oh."
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
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