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A poet’s love letters to the outdoors

When a young Aimee Nezhukumatathil — a self-proclaimed “little nerd” for nature and environmental literature — opened her books on science to the author page, she was discouraged by the lack of faces that resembled her own.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Photo by Kellie Szkatulski)

The daughter of a South Indian father and Filipina mother, Nezhukumatathil worried that she and brown girls like her didn’t belong outside. “Are we not supposed to be a part of this…excitement or wonderment about the outdoors?” she asked herself.

In her latest collection, “Oceanic,”, Nezhukumatathil adds her voice to the tradition of nature literature with a series of love poems for the Earth. Nezhukumatathil said she writes “around, through and towards” an image.

In her poem “Sea Church,” she reimagines dolphins as commas, every jump from the water of the Gulf Coast a punctuation mark in the air, encouraging pause and reflection. She imagines the “water-prayer” of her words rising like sky lanterns.

Teaching at the University of Mississippi, Nezhukumatathil said she’s witnessed first-hand the kind of power that equal opportunity for engagement in nature and science can have on students and youth. The more everyone is outside, she said, the better we treat the planet — and each other.

Read Nezhukumatathil’s “Sea Church” below.

Sea Church

Give me a church
made entirely of salt.
Let the walls hiss
and smoke when
I return to shore.

I ask for the grace
of a new freckle
on my cheek, the lift
of blue and my mother’s
soapy skin to greet me.

Hide me in a room
with no windows.
Never let me see
the dolphins leaping
into commas

for this water-prayer
rising like a host
of sky lanterns into
the inky evening.
Let them hang

in the sky until
they vanish at the edge
of the constellations —
the heroes and animals
too busy and bright to notice.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, “Sea Church” from Oceanic, Copyright © 2018 by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.

Fred Courtright
The Permissions Company Inc
Rights Agency for Copper Canyon Press

Aimee Nezhukumatathil was born in Chicago to a Filipina mother and South Indian father. She earned her BA and MFA from The Ohio State University and was a Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of Miracle Fruit (2003), winner of the ForeWord Magazine Poetry Book of the Year and the Global Filipino Literary Award; At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), winner of the Balcones Prize; Lucky Fish (2011); and Oceanic (2018). A book of illustrated nature essays, World of Wonder is forthcoming in 2019 from Milkweed Editions. With Ross Gay she cowrote the chapbook of epistolary nature poems, Lace and Pyrite (2014). She was the 2016-17 Grisham writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, where she is currently professor of English in the MFA program. She lives with her husband and sons in Oxford, Mississippi.