Reviewed by Jeannine M. Pitas
In Our Beautiful Bones
“The lightning fell, and I only knew / that it entered my eyes, and thunder / repeated words in my ears / I could not understand / in the grey-blue light of evening […] my heartbeat / like oars slamming hard / against every climbing wave, / my hands on the steering wheel / clawing at it as if it were / a raft” (5). In the first poem of this stunning collection, Zilka Joseph evokes a barely-avoided car accident that takes the poetic speaker on a journey into the past, evoking her father’s youth as a Bombay steamship sailor and her Bene Israel ancestors who first migrated to India. A diasporic subject many times over, Joseph invites us to accompany her on a Dantesque voyage through harsh realities of life as an immigrant from India to the United States. Though the journey is painful, she ultimately leads us toward a kind of paradise where “pain [may be] transformed into lilies / sweet scent lifting us all to new light” (96).
Human cruelty rears its head throughout this sobering collection. Joseph seeks to reveal the ongoing impact of the historical trauma wrought by colonialism in her country of birth as well as the daily racism so many people face in our so-called land of the free. Much of the stress of the immigrant experience comes from microaggressions of various kinds. In a poem entitled “Introduction to Circles,” the speaker describes joining a book club in which, while reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, the other members expect her to answer their many questions about India – essentially, to act as a representative of the entire culture for them.
“I find it hard / to answer, eat, and while eating talk / about the caste system, / the status of women – or the lack of it, terrified / of dropping crumbs or spilling my wine, all the while / explaining behavioral patterns and traditions / of life forms on my planet,” she asserts wryly (15). Joseph highlights the awkwardness of not knowing what to say, feeling out of place and treated like an object of curiosity rather than a group member welcomed into the circle on equal footing with the others. The experience is dizzying, leaving her feeling that the hors d’oeuvres on her plate “seem to turn, faster and faster, the Ferris wheel / at Navy Pier, its light / like pearls, from a broken necklace spilling / onto the night-time mirror of Lake Michigan” (16).
Sometimes, microaggressions are subtle, and the person who experiences them cannot be entirely sure if they were intended or not. The experience is disorienting and disconcerting, adding to the stress. In “One Sunday,” the speaker describes meeting three small European-American girls in a parking lot, “a pink vision of innocence / in your silky Sunday / frills” (34). When she smiles at the children, the mother “shoots / a strange glance at me, grabs / your hands, whips you / around like little puppets, pulls / you through the doors / of the store. You disappear in a flash. / What just happened?” (35).
The speaker is left disoriented, confused that her innocent admiration of a stranger’s children has provoked a hostile reaction from their mother. “Few here look like me. Heading home, / my hands shaking / on the wheel, I tell / myself forget it, forget it – it was only surprise that scared them” (35). But was it? While the speaker has no way of knowing for certain, the impact of the mother’s reaction to her causes enormous anxiety as she tries to make sense of her perceptions.
On the other hand, some aggression is not even remotely subtle. In “First Walk on Avon,” the poem right before “One Sunday,” the speaker describes walking through another parking lot and hearing a stranger shout racist expletives from the window of a passing car. By juxtaposing these poems side by side, Joseph suggests that, though different in their degree and gravity, these two interactions with strangers in a public space are more similar than not. Much like Claudia Rankine’s acclaimed documentary poem Citizen: An American Lyric, Joseph’s collection shows us that blatant aggression and microaggression are two sides of the same coin, routinely experienced by people of color throughout the United States.
As a European-American woman reading these poems, I find myself recalling microaggressions that I have committed and recall becoming conscious of soon after the fact – while wondering about those that I have committed without realizing. While guilt may be a knee-jerk response to the awareness that I have caused offense, on its own it does nothing to improve the situation. Joseph suggests that what is needed instead is a recognition of reality and a willingness to change.
In “25 Responses,” she lists some of the invalidating answers that a person of color hears when describing an act of bigotry they have experienced: “This happened here? But it’s such a welcoming place. / What? I’m sure you misunderstood. / They’ll get used to seeing you. This happens everywhere. / Ignore them! It’s ignorance, nothing else” (56). These dismissive comments only intensify the impact of microaggressions. By listing them so starkly, Joseph urges readers to consider the ways we respond to the stories of others, particularly those with less power and privilege – to listen rather than dismissing, to show compassion for the other rather than turning the focus toward the self.
While the experience of racism is an important feature of this nuanced collection, it is not the only aspect of the immigrant experience that Joseph explores. In Global Diasporas: An Introduction, social scientist Robin Cohen delineates characteristics of diasporas – groups of people dispersed, whether voluntarily or not, from an original homeland to two or more host nations. Some of the defining characteristics of the diasporic experience include an idealization of the original homeland, the development of a return movement, a troubled relationship with the host nation, and, in many cases, the opportunity for a creative, flourishing life in the newfound home. Joseph’s poems reflect the paradox of the diasporic experience beautifully. Despite the pain and difficulty, there is fascination and joy at the first experience of seeing snow, a determination to speak truth and tell one’s personal and collective story in all its complexity, and always a deep love and appreciation for food.
Food is a central motif running throughout this story. While it is, unfortunately, another aspect of the speaker’s identity that is subjected to racist microaggressions, it is also a source of great joy. In a poem called “The Rice Fields,” the speaker describes returning to the United States from India with sweets in her baggage and being subject to a Department of Agriculture inspections. Shaking her head at the officer as she explains her goods contain no dairy, she states, “the red-gold cardboard boxes of sweets he can see / but not the rice sprouting beneath / the young green shoots / no our rice fields he will never see / we carry them wherever we go” (21). In “Live to Eat,” she intones, “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” (80).
I highly recommend this collection of poems to all who seek to create a culture of encounter and inclusion during these divisive times. Though Joseph does not sugar coat the harsh realities of the immigrant experience, her stance is one of defiant hope: “we know where we’re going / we know where we’re from / may we move freely / through the passage between lives / can you see us dancing in the dark and in the rain / and in the moonlight the firelight the lamplight / dancing in the sun / in our own shining skin / in our beautiful bones” 92).
In Our Beautiful Bones. Zilka Joseph. Mayapple Press, 2021.
Zilka Joseph was nominated twice for a Pushcart, and for Best of the Net. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Poetry Daily, KRO, MQR, Asia Literary Review, Ablucionistas, and in anthologies such as RESPECT: An Anthology of Detroit Music Poetry, 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium, and The Kali Project. Her chapbooks Lands I Live In and What Dread were nominated for a PEN America and a Pushcart respectively. Sharp Blue Search of Flame, her book of poems (Wayne State University Press) was a Foreword INDIES Book Award finalist. She teaches creative writing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is a manuscript coach. www.zilkajoseph.com
Jeannine Marie Pitas is a teacher, writer and translator. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Or/And (Paraclete Press 2023) and Things Seen and Unseen (Mosaic Press 2019). She is the translator or co-translator of twelve books by Latin American writers, most recently Uruguayan poet Silvia Guerra's A Sea At Dawn, co-translated by Jesse Lee Kercheval, forthcoming from Eulalia Books in Fall 2023. She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches at Saint Vincent College. More information at: www.jeanninemariepitas.com