"Hippopotomonstro-sesquippedaliophobia"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Jan. 20 2004 12:26 PM

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

the fear of long words Listen to Aimee Nezhukumatathil reading this poem. On the first day of classes, I secretly beg my students Don't be afraid of me. I know my last name on your semester schedule

is chopped off or probably misspelled—
or both. I can't help it. I know the panic
of too many consonants rubbed up
against each other, no room for vowels

to fan some air into the room of a box
marked Instructor. You want something
to startle you? Try tapping the ball of roots

of a potted tomato plant into your cupped hand
one spring, only to find a small black toad
who kicks and blinks his cold eye at you,
the sun, a gnat. Be afraid of the X-rays

for your teeth or lung. Pray for no dark spots.
You may have pneumonoultromononucleosis—
coal lung. Be afraid of money spiders

tiptoeing across your face while you sleep
on a sweet, fat couch. But don't be afraid
of me, my last name, what language I speak
or what accent dulls itself on my molars.

I will tell jokes, help you see the gleam
of the beak of a mohawked cockatiel. I will
lecture on luminescent sweeps of ocean, full

of tiny dinoflagellates oozing green light
when disturbed. I promise dark gatherings
of toadfish and comical shrimp just when you think
you are alone, hoping to stay somehow afloat.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of Miracle Fruit, winner of the 2002 Tupelo Press Prize. She is assistant professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia.