May 19, 2007

Review: At the Drive-In Volcano

At the Drive-In Volcano
Tupelo Press, $16.95 paperback

The curious finds in nature and human folly, which might otherwise get slumped into trivia or become the odd ingredient in a conversation starter, are skillfully and delicately handled in the much-anticipated second book of poems At the Drive-In Volcano (Tupelo Press, $16.95 paperback) by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

In “Fugu Soup Blues” for example, the reader’s introduced to the toxic porcupine fish, “the only fish/ that can close its eyes.” But the poem moves beyond reportage of facts and into the terrain of people’s attraction to risky behavior, i.e. the consumption of such a dangerous delicacy. The closing stanzas, however, beg associations to all of those other uncontrollable urges and indulgences:
You cannot stop this hunger. When
something this good can kill you, every pin prick

of white pain just adds more flavor.
The process of taking the unexpected, disconcerting detour from the seemingly charming direction of the poem is found in numerous pieces but most notably in “How the Robin’s Breast Became Red,” “Bee Wolf” and “Planaria,” about the “murderous business” of biology class dissections. It’s as if the poet has taken to heart the ars poetica cleverly ensconced in the poem about a jealous woman hiding a scorpion in her bride-to-be sister’s hair:
Invent a new line
for me, sketch me something

with lots of hair, extra bite. I crave

a new monster, all of its life

and saliva, how it gives me proof

my blood can still slam from one end

of my body to the other…
Nezhukumatathil’s poetic lens is indeed smudged with an anxiety that gives her second book a distinctively sinister edge. Witness the following lines from three different poems:
If you take away my glass before I’m finished, the ice
will cry soft in its melting, without my last mouthfeel.


This is the last hotel where the towels in the corner
of the bathroom (crumpled, dark) look

like someone was shot.


…even peeling an apple gives me

a small happy terror—the bright sheen of blood

and seed-skin.
Though the endnotes explain that the five sections of the book “are divided into specific thematic movements in a volcano’s lifespan,” the ordering of the poems within each section only hint at this larger construction. What’s more apparent is the speaker’s own movement in the first-person poems from one marker of identity to the next: sister, daughter, girlfriend, student, teacher, wife. This succession of roles stays connected by the speaker’s constant examination, volcano in the title notwithstanding, of the small and mostly eye-level encounters with the extraordinary ordinary things. The title poem, with its assertion that “Even in this darkness/ there is so much light,” appears to be addressing a new stage in the author’s poetics—a less innocent, and certainly a more perilous worldview. The result is daring and dazzling.

But fans of Nezhukumatathil’s previous volume Miracle Fruit should not be alarmed since they will find traces of that earlier project in this one, such as in the poem “First Fool,” about those men who rush to the summerwear at the first signs of sunlight:
The pale scissors
of this guy’s legs always cut me up. All

that’s left of me is a paper snowflake—

nothing but folds and tiny diamond holes.
by Rigoberto González