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Moving words and worlds

Poet Zilka Joseph trades in India for America



Sometimes the topics and themes of a book of poetry stagger all over the place. The opposite is true, however, with Zilka Joseph’s chapbook, Lands I Live In. It’s a highly focused work exploring themes of home, courage and displacement.

Zilka Joseph grew up in Calcutta, India. In 1997, she and her husband moved to Chicago, then, in 2000, to Michigan. Currently living in Auburn Hills, Joseph tutors at Oakland Community College and teaches poetry workshops for Springfed Arts: Metro Detroit Writers.

The 16 poems of Lands I Live In are divided into two sections. The first nine, called “Across Worlds,” document the move to Chicago, as well as the period of adjustment that followed. The last seven, titled “Old Countries,” capture memories from adulthood and childhood in India.

Told in a direct, conversational style, Joseph’s poems read like miniature stories about getting to know America. In the book’s attention-grabbing opener, “Drinking Vodka at 35,000 ft.,” the extent of the poet’s bravery is defined when she admits not knowing what the word “downtown” means, as the man in the airplane seat beside her points to Chicago buildings below. In her following poem, “Strange Landing,” Joseph struggles through the airport to meet her husband “married to me six years,/but whose face I suddenly can’t remember.”

The first section’s topics are intriguing and sharp — they include phoning her parents (every Friday), standing in line to get a green card, her irritation at the phrase “God bless you,” and feeling like an outsider during a book club meeting — of being “terrified of dropping crumbs/or spilling my wine.” Her most innovative poem of the group, “Ten Takes on Snow,” is reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’ widely anthologized “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in terms of structure and meditative feel. The poem is visceral, dark and cunning. For example, the third stanza:

Snow’s a new word I fear.
The ‘s’ in ‘snow’
wraps around me like an icy tongue,
the o’ like blue lips
with the power
to swallow everything.

The second half of Lands I Live In exposes key moments from the poet’s youth, and deals with such universal subjects as food, family and puberty. “Footprints,” the most intriguing and moving of these, tells of the inexplicable bond between Joseph and the neighborhood cobbler, who was “Skinny and sunburned as Gandhi.” If you enjoy a more literal take on poetry, you will enjoy Lands I Live In. If you are drawn to tales of bravery and of risk, you will adore Lands I Live In. If you think you’ll be fascinated by the strange charm of a poet exploring a language that’s not her native one (her native one is Marathi), pick up a copy of Lands I Live In.

Above all else, you feel the sheer necessity of Lands I Live In. You feel the urgency that must have been inherent in its creation. You can literally taste Zilka Joseph’s fear and pride of “a country of blue jeans and perfume,/a place, you were told, girls could do/everything boys could, and more.” Lands I Live In can be seen, therefore, as a kind of therapeutic travel journal.

By Zilka Joseph, from Lands I Live In: Poems

My nieces look at me in awe,
stare at my jetlagged clothes,
thaw slowly, and finally snuggle up to me, waiting for the moment I will open the hallowed suitcase — lumpy and dusty after travelling many time zones, with magical words like Northwest-KLM or American Airlines on torn tags.

Their searchlight eyes are unrelenting
and pierce the thick Samsonite skin of the bag,
dreaming of what lies inside — what may surprise them? The heat throbs outside the window, they whisper within the walls of their tiny room. I can hear the heartbeat of their thoughts.
Hockey-practice-sticky, ties awry,
blue school uniforms disheveled,
faces wet, they are breathless.
I release them from agony.

Lindt and Godiva spill gold on the bed,
the red backpacks make them scream Look Mom, it’s Jansport! The 60 color gel pen set reflects in their eyes like rainbows.
Craft-kits, books and sugar cookies appear from the bottomless bag — they gasp as they view the spoils, then scrutinize Mom and Dad’s gifts, even the Snausages and flea-collars for Duchess.
For a moment a silence chills the room
before their joy breaks like the monsoon over me.

I absorb every drop like a parched sponge, devour expressions, movements, squeals, all precious cargo I will carry overseas and savor slowly, as they will my gifts — one bite at a time, for a year or two. And till I can hug them again, I leave treats, kisses, funny photographs to remember me by.

Zilka Joseph reads from Lands I Live In at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 12, at Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, 106 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-586-9602. Joseph is currently working on a full-length collection of poems.

Heather A. McMacken is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].

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