Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of Miracle Fruit and At the Drive-In Volcano (both from Tupelo Press). New work appears in the American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, and Gulf Coast. Awards for her writing include an NEA grant and the Pushcart Prize in poetry. She is associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia. She lives in Western NY with her husband and young son.
When Cleopatra received Antony on her cedarwood ship,
she made sure he would smell her in advance across the sea:
perfumed sails, nets sagging with rosehips and crocus
draped over her bed, her feet and hands rubbed in almond oil,
cinnamon, and henna. I knew I had you when you told me
you could not live without my scent, bought pink bottles of it,
creamy lotions, a tiny vial of perfume—one drop lasted all day.
They say Napoleon told Josephine not to bathe for two weeks
so he could savor her raw scent, but hardly any mention is ever
made of their love of violets. Her signature fragrance: a special blend
of these crushed purple blooms for wrist, cleavage, earlobe.
Some expected to discover a valuable painting inside
the locket around Napoleon’s neck when he died, but found
a powder of violet petals from his wife’s grave instead. And just
yesterday, a new boy leaned in close to whisper that he loved
the smell of my perfume, the one you handpicked years ago.
I could tell he wanted to kiss me, his breath heavy and slow
against my neck. My face lit blue from the movie screen—
I said nothing, only sat up and stared straight ahead. But
by evening’s end, I let him have it: twenty-seven kisses
on my neck, twenty-seven small murders of you. And the count
is correct, I know—each sweet press one less number to weigh
heavy in the next boy’s cupped hands. Your mark on me washed
away with each kiss. The last one so cold, so filled with mist
and tiny daggers, I already smelled blood on my hands.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this in 2000, around Valentine’s Day in fact. I was a poetry fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and figuring out the spiderwebs of a tumultuous on-again, off-again long-distance relationship.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Back then, because I was writing pretty intensely five to six days a week, most of my poems written at that time were only one or two drafts, with line edits here and there. Most days I could finish a pretty polished poem with only a few minor tweaks. About half of my first collection, Miracle Fruit, was written in this way. I don’t mean to sound like poems just come easy to me, but I do believe when you are in a continuous practice and drafting stage (I was scribbling on receipts, napkins, and my hand when I wasn’t in front of my desk), and your pores are just open and alive to the possibilities of language and wordplay all around us, then nine times out of ten, the writing does come out the way I want it to come out—a nice mix of deliberation, supposition, utter surprise, and a dash of hocus-pocus ‘Where-did-THAT-image-come-from?’ I’m a lot slower, but, I think more focused now if that is possible (meaning, when I get two hours to write, I get right down to business and don’t mess around), with a lively two-year-old and another on the way.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Yes—of course, I find I am more inspired when I am more alive and more present in this world. And focused. If I have a series of deadlines, grading, family stuff, etc, I feel more scattered and the writing is hard—no amount of sweat and tears will help. But when I focus, for example, on my teaching and grading, and am really present and there when I am conferencing with students or discussing their poems, I feel like I get tons of writing ideas out of it. When I am thinking of my son or a new poem I’m working on while I’m teaching, I get nada, zip. Drafting a poem is that much more difficult. On my best teaching days, I come home excited to write. On my best writing days, I am excited to go back and teach. They go hand in hand and feed off of each other. I have to remember that, especially right about mid-semester when things are always piling up.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I felt this was the most intimate I had ever been at that point with any poem I’d written—it was an amalgam of three relationships I’d had and at times it did feel very confessional and raw, and dark, so I wanted to tell a story at first—thus, the fairly tight stanzas. But I was hoping the neat little blocks of stanzas would also unsettle the reader.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
This was one of those rare “gift” poems that come from being in a place where I had the luxury and gift of time to focus almost exclusively on my poems. I sent it off within days of finishing it to Shenandoah, one of the magazines I had been dying to get into but that had always rejected my work up until that point. They not only accepted it, but gave me my first Pushcart nomination and then awarded it their Boatwright Prize for the best poem published that year. Please don’t hate me. It doesn’t usually happen like this. I swear.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
One of the things I am very proud about in my poems is the use of science and biology as metaphor or image for jumpstarting a poem. I take great pains to do extensive research for my poems and I feel like I owe that truthfulness or “fact” to the readers when I do employ imagery from the natural world. I don’t want anyone reading about a flower or an animal only to find that I just made it up. I don’t dare make it up—I don’t want the reader to feel cheated in that way. I feel this obligation with any of the natural images in my work, but I feel zero obligations to the reader about being “factual” about any of the relationships in the poems. It isn’t autobiography, after all, I remind my parents, my husband, etc. Like I said before—the “you” in this particular poem is really three guys. Obviously there is one person that stands out in this poem, the one who is being addressed in the last stanza. Maybe because even if I am writing about say, my son, or my mother, I still want to hold something back, something private? When I was touring for Miracle Fruit, the number one question I would get would be about what is real and what isn’t. I never gave a straight answer about my relationships. But I can say that any little bit of scientific trivia or natural elements used in my poems is 100% real.
Is this a narrative poem?
I think it can be both. There is certainly a story-telling element here, but I think at the heart of the poem, the speaker leaps into a mode of association: Josephine, perfumes, the speaker’s perfume, and then a metaphor of the speaker’s feelings.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Confession: I almost never read poetry when I am writing poetry. At the time I was savoring all of Diane Ackerman’s Natural History books and probably reading a Margaret Atwood novel of some sort. Almost certainly reading a bird guide or three. I read poetry on days when I don’t plan on writing, especially when I travel. So poetry is always with me when I write, just not directly in front of me.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
No. Even though I had a wonderful coterie of writer-fellows, I was very solitary when it came to the actual writing. Still am. But every summer I have a small writing group that exchanges poems online, so that has been very helpful. Otherwise, my husband is the one who first sees my work. He is not afraid to tell me when I have a weak line or when a poem or essay is just floundering. He’s a wonderful editor (the non-fiction editor for Mid-American Review) and I’m lucky to have his eye.
["Small Murders"is from Miracle Fruit published by Tupelo Press, copyright 2003 Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Used with permission.]