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H Kalpana Rao
In Our Beautiful Bones’ by Zilka Joseph
H Kalpana

In Our Beautiful Bones | Poetry Collection | Zilka Joseph |
Mayapple Press (2021) | ISBN: 978-1-952781-07-0 | pp 101 | $19.95

About Zilka Joseph, the author

Zilka Joseph’s work is influenced by her Indian and Bene Israel roots, and Eastern and Western cultures. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Poetry Daily, Kenyon Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, Asia Literary Review, and in RESPECT: An Anthology of Detroit Music Poetry, 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium, Cheers to Muses: Contemporary Work by Asian American Women, and The Kali Project. She was co-editor for the Matwaala Anthology of Poetry. Her poems and chapbooks have been nominated for Pushcart and PEN awards, and Best of the Net. Sharp Blue Search of Flame, her book of poems (Wayne State University Press, Detroit) was a Foreword INDIES Book Award finalist. Her third chapbook Sparrows and Dust was recently nominated for a Pushcart. In Our Beautiful Bones, her new book, has been nominated for a PEN America award. She was born in Mumbai, and lived in Kolkata for most of her life. She now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. She teaches creative writing workshops, is an editor, manuscript coach, and a mentor to writers in her community. 

Questions of assimilation and identity raised by an Indian Jew

Dislocation, displacement and the search for belonging and creating an identity are normative features of diasporic writing. On the other hand, Zilka Joseph explores the day-to- day reality of life as an immigrant and how small routine matters are treated differently by the majority populace. In Our Beautiful Bones touches upon the poet’s encounters with shades of violence that emerge from a white supremacy backdrop. The poems investigate her ancestral roots as a Jew and the effects of life in India. The collection begins with a prefatory poem titled, ‘Voyage’ which is set off by the statement of the Upanishads regarding sound, “The Upanishads explain how wisdom can be absorbed through sound, how the ear is a vessel—the receiver of divine messages” (5). This beginning sets the tone of the poems that are conversational, dialogic and casual. ‘Voyage’ also sets off the aspect of uprooting and the notion of migration.

…Then a dam of white
light broke, the wall of water
shattering its cargo, and me
inside it like a seed.

The above poem provides the sense of engulfment due to the white waves. The latter part of the book is sectioned into 5 parts. The twelve poems in Section 1 are initiated with ‘Drinking Vodka at 35,000 ft’ that describes the air travel from India to US and the curiosity of the fellow passenger to place the writer and gauge her roots. Many of the poems in this section discuss the vagaries of life in the US. The poem that personally touched me was ‘The Scent of an Indian’. It evocatively expresses how the Indian spices trouble the neighbourhood – “An auntie tells me/her neighbors complain/when cooking smells/float out of her window/ and into their apartment” – and how Indians try to dissipate these aromas which were once the aspect of rich commercial ventures -- “Fun facts. Vasco da Gama/sailed from Portugal/looking for India, for spices. Opened/our world to the west.” (26-27)

Section 2 has 10 poems that deal mostly with language and the politics of language. The poet clearly critiques the problematic of accent and miscommunication that Indian immigrants face in US of A, although Indians have a high level of English. She ruefully comments,

we may have triple Ph. Ds and win Pulitzers
Even a Nobel or two
non-native speakers of English
they call us in America (49)

Yet another poem (‘The Suburban Car Dealership Shuttle Driver’), in this section discusses how migration is connected to economic need and how even the bus driver who is an immigrant thinks that everyone should know English no matter what, although he is not a great one for languages: “Don’t they know they should speak English/if they want to live here/My father came all the way from Russia/he knew English…I’m not one for languages and that kind of stuff…” (52)

Section 3 with six poems confers happenings in India. The first poem in the section, ‘Hunting White Tigers in Kipling Country’ begins with the shikars and the imagined dynamic of the prey and predator and carries it forward in the rest of the poems. Personally, I felt that ‘A-Z of Foreign Anguish’ influenced by the Canadian poet, Marlene Nourbese Philip’s Discourse on Language did not fit into the framework. Most of the poems by Zilka Joseph have a tongue-in-cheek outlook and are sardonic and ironical. On the other hand, ‘A-Z of Foreign Anguish’ is vicious and rhetorical. Section 4 and 5 have two poems and one poem each. The two poems in section 4 evoke the image of America as a land of immigrants and celebrates metaphorically the mingling of different races. Punning on the image of America as visualised by Allen Ginsberg and various poets, the poem, ‘Freedom song with Ginsberg, Dylan, Marley’ refers to the American and his tolerance: “American you are beautiful/ Sometimes you have the biggest heart I know/ Sometimes you have the smallest heart I know…” (83). The last poem ‘Prayer’ draws on the Christian and Ben Israeli roots to offer homage and work as the epilogue of the book. The collection has a Notes section that provides extra information regarding the English language, the Bene Israel community as well as poems referred to. The section also contains the Charter Act of 1813 and extracts from Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Education’. The cover page art piece titled, ‘Exodus’ is beautifully designed by Siona Benjamin.

The collection provides pleasure by its casual quirky statements and yet deep down, the poems do raise pertinent questions of assimilation and identity. Along with this broader sense of the problems of the immigrants, the poet also blends in her own quest of identity as a Bene Israel and as an Indian. To conclude I would say that Zilka Joseph does bind the ‘Beautiful Bones’ in a human spirit as echoed by Stephen Hawking, “We are all different. There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit.”


Issue 101 (Jan-Feb 2022)

Book Reviews
  • Amit Shankar Saha: ‘Unbound – New and Selected Poems (1996-2021) ’ by Sanjukta Dasgupta
  • Annapurna Sharma: ‘Cancer, you picked the wrong girl’ by Shormistha Mukherjee
  • Annapurna Sharma: ‘The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing – Select Short Stories by Women Writers’ edited and introduced by Shireen Quadri
  • H Kalpana: ‘In Our Beautiful Bones’ by Zilka Joseph
  • Sat Paul Goyal: ‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama
  • Sudha Rai: ‘The Book of Passing Shadows’ by CV Balakrishnan (Malayalam original), Trans. by TM Yesudasan
  • Venkata Rao Bolla: ‘POW 1971 – A Soldier’s Account of the Heroic Battle of Daruchhian’ by Maj Gen Vijay Singh
  • Sujatha Gopal: ‘Undercover in Bandipore’ by Ashok Kaul
  • Semeen Ali: ‘Two and a half rivers’ by Anirudh Kala
  • Gopal Lahiri: ‘Burn the Library and Other Fictions’ by Sunil Sharma
  • Atreya Sarma U: ‘Mumblings & Musings’ by Anirban Bhattacharyya