Evocative Joy in ‘World of Wonders’

The essay collection World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments is the first, and hopefully not the last, by Guggenheim- and NEA-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil. This book is short, as are the pieces within it: the slim 160-page book contains 31 essays. Each individual piece is named after a specific element of nature, but these essays are not solely textbook chapters on flora and fauna – they are about Nezhukumatathil herself. We see her grow up: she regularly moves with the changes in her parents’ jobs, and later moves with her own changes in employment. As a woman, and as the daughter of a Filipina mother and Indian father, she experiences hate. She has close friends, she finds love, and she raises a family. After a lifetime of moving, she finds a place to call home.

It’s a busy, complex life, and she uses plants and animals to reflect on these varied experiences, and to make sense of them. The ribbon eel’s open-mouth stare reminds her of her youngest son’s look of surprise he was known for when he was a baby; the thigmonastic response of the touch-me-not plant makes her think of times she shirked away from the unwelcome touch of others; the migration of newts help her reflect on her own movements, and the place she has decided to call home.

Facts about each “astonishment” are so effortlessly woven into the personal narratives that you don’t realize how much you have learned about the natural world until the book is over. Many of these plants and animals she has seen in person; she swam over a whale shark in Atlanta, she marvels over cactus wrens during weekends on Cambelback Mountain outside of Phoenix. Others, like the vampire squid, dancing frogs, or birds of paradise dwell in places she has only studied. It’s a literary Planet Earth, showing you the lushness of the natural world while telling you more about it (and convincing you to protect it).

Colorful, lush drawings by Fumi Nakamura are scattered throughout the collection. These drawings have the precision of botanical illustrations, but with the playfulness of pet portraits. Though Nezukumatathil’s descriptions are vivid enough that you could probably imagine these creatures if you had never seen them, the drawings help set the tone of their corresponding pieces. The stern Southern Cassowary, one of the only birds known to kill humans, glares at you; the dancing frogs celebrate how they have been recently discovered; the hopeful light from the firefly twinkles amid little stars.

Even the surliest reader will find joy in these pages. Nezhukumatathil loves nature, to be sure, but she also loves her children, her husband, her parents and family, her friends and community. You don’t just see it in a handful of essays – the book is full of love. Her exuberance and gratitude for the people in her life is refreshing, especially when I think of all the personal essays and memoirs I have read that focus on strained relationships. One of my favorite essays, “Corpse Flower,” is an unexpected romance:

…I spent three years tracking blooming corpse flowers all over the world, and in that time, only one man out of dozens – one – didn’t blanch at my description of this incredible plant or disparage my enthusiasm. Only one man didn’t wince when I said the word inflorescence. In fact, this man wanted to know more… I couldn’t believe my luck when, a few months later, over what had become our near-weekly dinner date, this handsome, green-eyed man put his fork down and said he wanted to take a road trip with me the next time a corpse flower bloomed… I knew he wasn’t joking when he said he’d go anywhere with me, and that he meant it.

But World of Wonders is not a simple sentimental stroll. She explores the darkness in the natural world, and in her own. She describes the apathy and cruelty animals endure at the hand of humans, advocating both for better wide-scale environmental protections as well as for individual accountability we all share. And as she and her loved ones feel a connection to nature, she also experiences the hate that humans are capable of towards each other. A notable example of this is “Peacock,” another one of the collection’s standout essays, which explores the relationship Nezhukumatathil had with her identity as a child. This isn’t a gloomy book by any means, but it is one that balances its contentment with this realism about the impact humans have on the world around them — plants and animals, yes, but other humans as well.

Each essay is perfectly packed with the efficient, evocative language you would expect from a veteran poet. My notebook is full of phrases that I was compelled to read out loud to myself and perfectly evocative descriptions I have never experienced (on Cara Cara oranges, she writes of their “cherry and rose petal smell”; of the dragon fruit, she writes that “for all its bluster and noise, [it] tastes like the quietest of melons”). The way the book is organized – one plant/animal per essay – is inviting, almost asking you to create your own personal catalogue of wonders and how they have affected you.

World of Wonders is many things. It’s a study and appreciation for curiosities in the natural world. It’s a book of illustrations that are beautiful enough to be framed and displayed. It’s an argument for the preservation of nature. It’s a gorgeous memoir. However you look at it, it’s a thing of beauty.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
By Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Milkweed Editions
Published September 8, 2020