"Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?" by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

I've always liked the tone of Aimee Nezhukumatathil's poetry, which seems to settle somewhere between humor and sadness. I also like her attention to the music of the language she chooses.

Read the full poem here.

The compact, sonnet-like form is densely populated: there's the "I" of the poet, the "you" of the reader (and of the specific audience of readers who have raised the title's question), and the "whole neighborhood of past loves" who rustle around the second half of the poem. But what I love the most about this poem is how it plays with singular and plural. The poet does all but number these imaginary husbands (although she does ask us to imagine "the number of bouquets [and] slices of cake"), and yet she calls them all "single" (as in "every single / one of them") while she is "married / [to] all of them." All the numbers are at odds here, which brings an interesting tension to the imagined world of multiple concurrent marriages: 

  • Singular sensory images: "a shark tooth stuck / in [a] heel," "a finished lollipop stick," "a thumbtack in [a] purse," "every last page," "every nuance," "a bubbling pot," "the stove," "the baby," "a fat chair," "the newspaper," "the shower."
  • The husbands are referenced individually: "one chops," "one stirs," "one changes," "one sleeps," "one flips," "another / whistles while he shaves," and "every single / one of them wonders." 
  • But also as a whole: "I have made them up—all of them" and "I married / all of them, a whole neighborhood."

The poem ends with the uplifting promise to the husbands (or to the reader) that "I am coming home" and yet it's really a lack of promise and a tense question: "every single / one of them wonders what time I am coming home."

And as always, the music:

  • shark, stuck, stick
  • If, finished, bit, whistles
  • by, surprise, bite, slices, times
  • mean, plan, even
  • purse, yes, last, past, us
  • page, wait, made
  • time, home

Somehow the music of the language she chooses gathers the poem together in a way that makes the tension bearable, and even funny.