Why I Chose Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club


Rumpus Poetry Club Board Member Camille Dungy on why she chose Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish as the fifth selection of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s most recent book demonstrates an exciting range, dexterity and playful fierceness.   These poems have fun with language, with the very idea of what poetry can be doing.  Even as she takes on the subjects of love and longing, the distances between who we are and who we hope to be, the poems are unabashedly joyful.

“Writing poems is as necessary as a cupcake,” she says in the delightful run of similes that comprise the poem “Sweet Tooth.” Of course, are cupcakes really necessary at all?  The poem’s form, its list of often outrageous comparisons, calls us back for repeated reconsideration.  There are few simple yes or no answers that don’t recomplicate themselves.  Nezhukamatathil writes with a light hand, but so many of the poems here are full of warnings, reminding us of risks we might not have even known we needed to be aware of, but which poetry has the power to reveal:

If a man in China can keep ten thousand dollars worth
of caterpillars in a metal box underneath his bed
for medicine, then I want to collect flakes of light
for those winter months when we go a whole week

without seeing a slice of sun. The light I want to collect
is free. Can’t be sold as a cure for muscle ache
or to ward off evil eye. I write this in August. It should be
illegal to talk about snow in Western New York now…
(“The Light I Collect”)

She plays her poems just off the expected path. The line between the normal and the novel is crossed, highlighted, underscored. I’m intrigued be the forms and methods Nezhukumatathil develops in this book, the paths of inquiry she follows.

I love the joy I find here, the awareness of our collective potential for folly, and the deep affection for people, specific and general, revealed in these poems.  Think of “DEAR AMY NEHZOOUKAMMYATOOTILL.” In this “found poem, composed entirely of emails from various high school students” and other poems throughout the book, Nezhukumatathil directly confronts what it means to open herself to others and what she might expect someone else to do with what she’s offered. An early review of Lucky Fish, praises its fascination “with the small mechanisms of being, whether natural, personal, or imagined”  (Publisher’s Weekly).  This attention to the details of the lived life is rampant throughout the book and is one of its most disarming characteristics. Nezhukumatathil polishes her lines like lucky pennies, tossing them towards us and asking, “When is the last time/ you really looked at a penny?”

Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W. W. Norton, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan UP, 2017). She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA, 2009), co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology (Persea, 2009), and served as assistant editor on Gathering Ground: Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade (University of Michigan Press, 2006). She is the poetry editor for Orion magazine. Dungy's work has appeared in Best American Poetry, 100 Best African American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Travel Essays, the Pushcart Anthology and more than 30 other anthologies, plus dozens of print and online venues including Poetry, American Poetry Review, VQR, Literary Hub, Paris Review, and Poets.org. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, a Colorado Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, two NAACP Image Award Nominations, and fellowships from the NEA in both poetry and prose. She lives in Colorado with her husband and daughter (and down the street from her parents, who followed her this time around). Dungy is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University. More from this author →