Book Review: ­­World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

By Jessica Bremmer

When considering World of Wonders, poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s collection of essays about the wonders, great and small, of the natural world, perhaps it is best to begin at the end. The book’s final essay, “Firefly (Redux),” contemplates the Photinus pyralis: “Its luminescence could very well be the spark that reminds us to make a most necessary turn—a shift and a swing and a switch—toward cherishing this magnificent and wondrous planet. Boom. Boom. You might think of a heartbeat—your own. A child’s. Someone else’s. Or some thing’s heart. And in that slowdown, you might think it’s a kind of love. And you’d be right.”

This slowdown is precisely what World of Wonders requires of its readers. These essays about the natural world are also, really, about family and motherhood, about childhood and the passage of time, about love (for one’s mother, for one’s spouse, for one’s children).  Each essay prompts a remembrance, and each of these memories helps Nezhukumatathil contextualize her life experiences, which then helps us make sense of our own. To receive these gentle lessons, we must pause, really look at the breathtaking illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura of the Whale Sharks, Touch-Me-Nots, and Dancing Frogs; welcome the lessons the natural world can teach us; recognize that bugs and plants and birds can help us make sense of our human lives.

The drawings and the words are delicate and unadorned and both require our careful attention. The details are there for us to uncover, but we must slow down enough to realize that, for example, her essay about the Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanium) is also about Nezhukumatathil’s love for her husband—“a man who’d never flinch, never leave my side when things were messy. This was a man who’d be happy when I bloomed.”

With a poet’s voice, Nezhukumatathil transforms this flower into a metaphor for her husband and her marriage, and this voice emerges in subtle and stunning ways throughout World of Wonders. For example, her ruminations about the Aaxolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) help her develop a defense against the racism she encounters as the daughter of a Filipina mother and Indian father. She suggests emulating the axolotl whose “smile runs from one end of the amphibian’s face to the other, curving at each end ever so gently upward” and suggesting “perhaps a gentle restraint.” But Nezhukumatathil then reveals that this smile masks something more aggressive and cannibalistic, and when this amphibian starts to eat, “what a wild mess—when it gathers a tangle of bloodworms into its mouth, you will understand how a galaxy first learns to spin in the dark, and how it begins to grow and grow.” Adopting the axolotl’s smile is a way to both armor oneself against predators and to lull those who seek to harm us into a false sense of calm. It can also, she tells us with the deft touch and lyricism of a poet, teach us a few things about how we came to be.

Nezhukumatathil urges us, in glimpses and small moments, without screaming at us or shaming us, to be open to the wisdom that surrounds us. In her essay about the Octopus (Octopus vulgaris), she marvels at the octopus’s suckers and neurons and arms, at its eye, which is “a door that judges us,” at its “ten thousand sensory neurons that detect texture, shape, and, most of all, taste.” She ponders how it “must have something almost like pity” about our own lack of these neurons. As she holds a dying octopus, she wonders if the octopus knows the lesson it teaches her about the interconnectedness of humans and animals. As it studies her and questions her with its octopus eye, she considers her own role in its death and realizes the impact we have on the lives—human, insect, cephalopod—that intersect our own. She reminds us over and over again that the natural world can instruct us about being human, about how to love, if we only let it.

The gift of this book is that it shows us how these lessons can be learned. In the midst of reading World of Wonders, and entirely because of it, I experienced my own moment of wonder. A hawk flew over our house, and my son, who desperately wants to be a grownup even though he is still very much a child, ran outside and shrieked with happiness at seeing this bird. As I stood next to him, I heard Nezhukumatathil’s voice reminding me to stop and take this in, to delight in the fact that my child, with his pure child’s heart, still delights in seeing a bird soar above him. This was a simple moment, one that might typically pass by without notice. But this was precisely the type of moment that Nezhukumatathil compels us to stop and consider. What this book teaches us is not only that we can look around us, look upward, look at the people and creatures who inhabit our space, but that we should so that these simple moments don’t simply pass us by.

World of Wonders is a lot of things. It is, in simplest terms, a collection of essays about the plants, animals, and insects that surround us. It is a collection of memories of a specific writer’s experiences in the world. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a reminder for us to never lose our sense of awe and wonder. You will never look at a butterfly or a cockatiel the same way again after reading this book. You will, I suspect, stop for a moment here and there and listen for those heartbeats she mentions in the final pages of the final essay, just as I did while watching the bird with my son. And for that, we should give thanks and praise to Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Jessica Bremmer earned her Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Southern California, where her research focused on Depression-era documentary and Mexican-American modernism. She is an Upper School English teacher and the English Department Chair at an independent girls’ school in the Los Angeles area.

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