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The creation of stories have allowed human history to continue to evolve and grow. Storytelling has been ingrained in cultures as a way of passing down lessons and history. The universal subject of love can be translated from language to language, culture to culture, allowing empathy to accrue from the hearts and minds from every walk of life. However, love can have many sides to its coin. Love can be expressed through betrayal of those very hearts and minds, or be an act of defiance. Love transcends borders and walls, but they can create new ones in its place. In its rough courses, people have been able to maneuver love through the lessons of the past. In Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poems, “The Origin of the Milky Way” and “Little Houses”, the poet ties a message through narrative of romantic relationships to the allegories of the past.
In “The Origin of the Milky Way”, Nezhukumatathil forces the audience to research the name of the painting and look at the piece while reading the poem- a common trait of her work. The painting by Jacopo Tintoretto from 1575 depicts the image of Zeus attempting to make Hercules immortal by drinking the milk of Hera. (National Gallery) The poet does not call upon the main focus of the poem, but Hera’s prized possessions in the background: “I can’t stop staring at the right-hand corner / of the painting, and I am reminded of the man / I miss, five hundred miles away.” (Nezhukumatathil, 12-14) Nezhukumatathil choses the birds rather than the god and goddess in reference to their fleeting relationship. The poet choses the bird to personify her lover for his flighty, fickle behavior: “The birds should see what’s coming, / but they don’t: he is occupied, and the female turns away / as if she is tried already,” (Nezhukumatathil, 19-21) Nezhukumatathil acknowledges this behavior in herself, but still longs for what she lacked in the relationship- stability: “I secretly want them to be caught, bagged together if only / to have them look in the same direction again, bend their necks / close to their plot their escape, vow a return to their willow tree —” (Nezhukumatathil, 22-24) Her beautiful image of her relationship with this man feels as if fate, personified as the cherubs in the painting, doomed it from the beginning. The poem instills the thought that fate could not tear them apart, if only the lover allowed their future together.
In “Little Houses”, the poet ventures away from the works of one man, but the lives of three women. Three powerful women- Frida Kahlo, Marie Antoinette, and Harriet Tubman- while coveted for their impact on history, had a history of men that shaped their lives. In the first stanza of the poem, Frida Kahlo’s relationship with her husband affected her negatively but, inevitably, for the better of her work: “She painted / Happy scenes / Happy colors / But still he slept / With other women’ … ‘She said, ‘I am / So often alone. / I am the subject / I know best.” (Nezhukumatathil I: 17-21, 31-34) Nezhukumatathil refers to the painting “A Few Small Nips” by Frida, which seem to star her , her lover, and the accompaniment of red blood. Her feelings were reflected in her visceral work, that sparks inspiration but leaves the audience appalled by it’s brutal nature. (Frida Kahlo) While Frida Kahlo’s husband cheated on her, she transformed her pain into beautiful pieces of art as a reflection of herself rather than her situation. In the second stanza of the poem, Marie Antoinette lived with a husband whose abuse was through neglect: “Louis did not care / Before they cut / Into Marie’s neck” (Nezhukumatathil II: 16-18) The downfall of France’s economy was due to the royal court’s gluttony that Marie Antoinette was famous for. (Smithsonian) If she were truly educated on the world outside the Versailles gates, she would not have been guillotined, leading to the extinction of the monarchy in France. In the third stanza, Harriet Tubman’s husband abandoned her: “Had a husband John / Who left her / When She was Free / But she loved him / Even kept his name” (Nezhukumatathil III: 13-17) Even after slavery, the ownership of human beings, the patriarchal ideals of a husband owning a woman stood true. The replacement of a woman’s last name for her husband was an act of possession, and for a woman who fought to end the control of people, she loved him so much that she traded her chains for new ones. Nezhukumatathil chose these women for their strong features as prominent figures in history, but for their resilience in the face of adversity with the men in their lives. Generations of students do not hear much about the men that affected their lives; they only hear the women that changed them.
Nezhukumatathil uses these poems as lessons to the audience to be aware of the circumstances of a romantic relationship. In “The Origin of the Milky Way”, Nezhukumatathil warns us as an audience of an irresponsible partner. Her mentions of how, in foresight, she wishes to be have created a stronger line of communication between her and her lover or even just have noticed the signs before her. Her choosing a piece in the background of a great work signifies how this relationship was in the background in the scheme of her life. In “Little Houses”, Nezhukumatathil titles the poem of women being confined by the men in their lives with the image of physical confinement in small quarters. The poet’s lessons varies from each woman but the general message is that even when confined by lovers, women should not be defined by it. Nezhukumatathil uses these women’s lives as a tool for her audience: a woman who creates great works through adversity, a woman who educates through her ignorance, and a woman who frees herself from her own chains.
Stories, defined by Webster Dictionary, is considered both “an account of incidents or events” and “a fictional narrative” (Webster). The work of Aimee Nezhukumatathil blends those ideals together. She creates the narrative of real life events with the fictional tone that translates the lessons needed to be told. Nezhukumatathil’s work can be defined as a champion for the women. Her subjects of these poems, “The Origin of the Milky Way” and “Little Houses”, seem to blend her personal experience with love to the lessons passed down to us as a consuming society. Their subject matter is clear and understanding, even if the audience has not personally felt the sting of cultural oppression or the pain of domestic abuse. The audience empathizes with each of the characters, human or not, as beings deserving of love. The poet takes these lessons from the past and creates a bridge between the past and the future by allowing the audience to choose whether or not history repeats itself.
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