(Zilka Joseph’s In our Beautiful Bones, Mayapple Press, 2022)
A blurb for Zilka Joseph’s latest full-length collection In Our Beautiful Bones asserts that the book spins experiences of racism and colonialism into “consciousness-exploding verse.” And while Joseph (who grew up in India and is currently based out of Michigan) does ruminate on these hard-hitting topics at length, it is in the quieter, subtler motif of journeys that I found this collection’s heart.
Consider the opening poem, titled “Voyage,” where we encounter a father and a daughter struggling to manage their respective vehicles (a steamship and a car) in a thunderstorm, in two different eras. Joseph’s descriptions of the thunderstorm constitute it as a quasi-religious experience, with surrender as the only option:
Then a dam of white
light broke, the wall of water
shattering its cargo, and me
inside it like a seed
giving itself up to water
and to wind.
The poem not only ties together the speaker and her parent’s experiences, but goes back further to link them with their Bene Israel ancestors, who were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast. Here’s how she brings together all these threads in the closing lines of the poem, recording the aftermath of the thunderstorm:
I felt its pull, a lift,
a nameless terror,
and my deafened ears
received every word it said—
what it had said
to my ancestors
what it had said
to my father
to his men
as it had let the sailors go,
as it had let my father go
and let us all go home.
As solitary and terrifying the journey in “Voyage” is, Joseph uses a more down-to-earth setting to give us an equally unsettling poem, “The Suburban Car Dealership Shuttle Driver,” which is largely driven by a conversation with a MAGA-esque driver who keeps insisting he doesn’t understand immigrant speech. Despite him being a thoroughly unlikable character, readers are left with a compelling, human portrait of a disgruntled man who is “not one for languages and that kind of stuff” and who “can’t remember what they call/cancer doctors.” The poem’s ending salvo effectively punctures the liberal fantasy that polite conversation will change disrespectful and racist attitudes.
Another vivid portrait-poem occurs in “Good Neighbours (or Ham Salad or What Would Jesus Do?)” The speaker’s neighbour is a woman implied to have multiple personality disorder, prone to shoplifting and drinking the speaker’s best bourbon—and laying the blame on Job, her “other self.” Joseph etches a sympathetic portrait of neighbours who share food and drive together to hair appointments despite the many transgressions of the shoplifting neighbour.
The immigrant experience is, of course, the central concern of In Our Beautiful Bones, and it is largely mediated through two themes—language and food. The speaker in “Drinking Vodka at 35000 Feet,” heading to Chicago to join her husband, anticipates the man from “The Suburban Car Dealership Shuttle Driver” who can’t understand her: “I ask for vodka and orange, speak clearly/so the hostess won’t have to ask me again.” The politics of wielding English as ‘a non-native speaker’ show up in multiple poems, mostly through people asking the speaker to repeat herself and commenting on her accent, and there is an entire poem (“English as She is Spoke”) devoted to cataloguing the microaggressions that crop up in this context, particularly the observers’ tone of surprise when the speaker is demonstrably competent in her work as a teacher. My favourite instance that illustrates this tussle over language is from “Good Neighbours,” where the neighbour is outraged
when she asked me about
a crossword clue she couldn’t crack
and in flash I came up with the word.
It was as if I’d stabbed her.
Just as language marks one as an immigrant, so is food a site of contention. In my first read of the collection, I was delighted by the subversion of the ‘smelly immigrant food’ trope in “Drinking Vodka at 35000 Feet,” where
The hostess brings strange lunch—
strong smelling salmon with sour cream,
I must confess that this subversion led me to believe that In Our Beautiful Bones would not resort to the clichés that are abundant in poems from the diaspora. However, on that count, I was sorely mistaken. A few poems later, we come across “The Scent of an Indian” which gripes precisely about Westerners complaining about ‘smelly immigrant food’:
I get it. Ginger, garlic, cumin,
coriander, turmeric aren’t
your everyday spices. But
they’ve been used for eons.
See how they are co-opted now?
Garam masala is a buzzword.
Turmeric capsules are a rage.
Suddenly coconut oil is a miracle.
This food is hip to some, but not
when we live, cook next door?
This entire stanza feels like it would be more at home in a Facebook rant against cultural appropriation than in a poem. This is a problem that Joseph unwittingly falls prey to throughout the collection: the need to Make a Point overshadowing the desire to write a good poem. What results is work that’s frequently meandering and prosaic, taking away from both poem and Point Being Made.
“The Scent of an Indian” also suffers from what I suspect is a broader problem in diasporic poetry: nostalgia that erases all complexity and nuance from “the old country.” Here’s what Joseph evokes in a later stage of the poem:
every home’s cooking smells
mingle and shimmy in the streets.
Which India might this be? Certainly not the one where Muslims and oppressed castes are not acceptable tenants for innumerable residential societies because “those people are unclean and cook non-veg!”? Certainly not the one where north-eastern communities are routinely marginalised because of their “smelly food”? Certainly not the India where, as I write this, halal food is the new bogeyman to further marginalise Muslims?
This naïveté is on display again in “The Night Babri Mosque Falls.” The poem is interesting in its depiction of normalcy and everydayness while a fateful event occurs elsewhere. That is, until the speaker muses: “Ayodhya means the land of no war, I say/softly. How could this happen after Independence?” The question is laughably childish, which I do not think is the intended effect in a poem that is otherwise sombre. And surely, there could have been a better way of working into the poem the resonance of Ayodhya’s literal meaning?
Another victim of this political naivete is “O Say Can You See”, an impassioned plea for America to recognise the shared humanity of all its people. Read aloud, it is almost a litany, carried forth by sheer rhythmic, incantatory force… a marvellous quality undercut by the lines “yes feel my heartbeat/touch my human skin/it is real” and “why are you afraid our blood is the same color.” These are admirable sentiments, to be clear, but they have been overworn to the point that the word ‘cliché’ does not suffice anymore.
But what truly takes the cake is “Live to Eat,” a poem that attempts to capture the vast differences in how various communities and regions suffered early on in the pandemic, particularly with regards to food. Had it been tackled sensitively, this would have been a poem to watch out for. Instead, we have a laundry list of Good Samaritans and essential workers who were on the frontlines, all trotted out as if to ease the speaker’s guilt of being well off:
We send our small
donations to charities everywhere.
Gleaners, World Central Kitchen
(Go Chef Jose Andres!), Vibha
(Go Chef Vikas Khanna!), Calcutta
Rescue (Go my friends!), and Covid
Bless the hands
of every farmer, laborer, picker,
packer, transporter, that touched
each bag or box of food! Oh all who
work at Trader Joe’s, Bombay
Grocers, Meijer’s, Kroger’s,
Costco, Patel’s! You rock.
You are our rock. You feed
us all. You feed,
you save my soul.
This is not to say that In Our Beautiful Bones is without merit. At its strongest moments, the collection thrives in conversation, in character-building, in its keen eye for detail. The poet excels at using the listing device, best evident in “25 Responses.” She is unafraid of working with formal constraints (as in the abecedarian “A-Z of Foreign Anguish,” and “First Walk on Avon” which hinges on repetition of lines). Joseph is particularly deft in linking an image or word in the final stanza of a poem to the opening stanza of the next, giving the collection an almost daisy-chain-like sense of cohesiveness. (I was tickled pink by the Dante reference at the end of “Drinking Vodka at 35000 Feet,” which led into the title of the next poem, “Introduction to Circles.”) However, it is marred by a lack of sophistication in its thematic handling and quite a few regrettable instances of sub-par editing. This is a collection that has several glimmers of promise; given that, I look forward to seeing how the poet evolves in her next offering.