Book Review: In Our Beautiful Bones

Review by: Pramila Venkateswaran

In Our Beautiful Bones
Author: Zilka Joseph
Publisher: Mayapple Press, 2021
pp. 101
ISBN: 9781952781070

The immigrant narrative and the critique of colonialism have been addressed by many poets in the latter half of the 20th century into the present, especially by poets of color in the U.S. and the U.K. However much we feel that these subjects have been exhausted, each person’s experience of migration has an immediacy to it. The migrant’s wound of loss just beneath the scab opens any moment. Zilka Joseph’s opening poem, “Voyage,” offers us images of the high seas her father sails in, the fear of the sailors as they traverse the rough waters, and the flailing ship, recalling the arduous journey of the poet’s Jewish ancestors “wrecked on the Konkan coast,” an exile which is the heartbeat behind the poems about the migration of the poet to the United States and her coming into consciousness of marginalization of black and brown people.

Zilka Joseph
Immigrating from South Asia to the U.S., a country that presents itself as white, she feels her journey is interwoven with the fraught history of the migration of Sikhs from Punjab to California in the late 19thcentury. Often autobiographical, Joseph narrates the shock of entry and its echoes over the decades in a country that does not quite know what to make of the “educated” English-speaking brown immigrant. Joseph deftly veers away from sentimentality to show the pain of distancing that she experiences, yet is able to maintain the ironic gaze at the host country by engaging in wit and humor. We are entertained by her stories of personal accounts that we recognize could be that of anyone who has felt othered. For example, most immigrants fear being stopped at Customs for bringing food items that the U.S. regards as far more dangerous than bombs. Behind Joseph’s witty observation about Customs officials learning the names of food items such as Bombay Duck and jeera and the immigrant outsmarting the official, lie the poignant nostalgia of the “rice fields” “sprouting beneath” these ‘contraband’ goods. Memories of home, etched in every object and speech of the immigrant, is invisible to the host country.

Pramila Venkateswaran

Joseph’s poems about colonialism is unique. Conquest is the motif that underlines the immigrant narrative of colonial subjugation.  Joseph talks about conquest of animals, the most vulnerable on our planet. The shikari, whether the Raja of a region or the British Raj, was bent on conquest and displaying imperial prowess. In the key poem in this volume, “Hunting White Tigers in Kipling Country,” patriarchy, imperialism, and class hierarchy converge in species domination--the near-extinction of exotic animals. Seeing and subduing are the apparatuses of oppression, leaving the victims in “one long red carpet in the dust.”

Joseph’s critique of white ideology and hyper patriarchy turns toward the recent spate of murders by police of unarmed African Americans. In her emblematic style of turning a cliché inside out, she imagines the frame of history through which a people (fish) entered the blue of a distant shore and were enslaved. The speaker laments, “whose fish whose water whose storm /… whose mother left behind.” But the fish can never return once they are forced on foreign land. 

The musicality in “Voyage,” that carries the softness of a teenager’s eyes turning to maritime adventure and the rich landscape of rural and urban America, are a treat to the eye and the ear. In “25 Responses (Or Pick a Combo),” she numbers the myriad rationalizing of racism; the responses range from intellectual to inane. In, “O Say Can You See,” which satirizes imperialism and racism, Joseph inserts phrases from the American national anthem to show the disjunction between freedom and oppression. She uses repetition expertly in “The Suburban Car Dealership Shuttle Driver,” to exhibit the crassness of white privilege in ordinary people, like the taxi driver who is either notoriously rude or so unbelieving in the humanity of the foreigner that he prefers to hunker down in his belief system.  In “Food Trouble,” as we get into the speaker’s narrative about being demeaned by her neighbors because of the smell of her cooking, the lines jolt and rock with the deliberate line breaks to mirror the impact of aggression. Joseph cleverly weaves John Lewis’ encouragement of “Good trouble” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over troubled waters” into her lines.  Thus, the “foreign” smell becomes the synecdoche of xenophobia.

Joseph’s tongue-in-cheek humor in response to often-heard question, “how come you speak such good English?” is “ah, the British stayed only for 200 years, you know, / took us to the cleaners / took us to church / where they / at our bodies drank our blood…” and taught English “by rote or by rod or by rood.” Yet, much to their chagrin, non-natives are dubbed ESL! Although we laugh and weep at racism in the U.S., Joseph looks back at the prejudices in India that lead to violence. In the prose poem, “The Night Babri Masjid Falls,” the restaurant owner says he is waiting to hear from his son who is in the area where Hindu zealots have attacked the Babri Masjid, a mosque, which they argue was built on the spot in Ayodhya, birthplace of Ram. We feel the poet’s urgency when she and her husband zip through the dark and empty streets on their motorbike. The tension multiplies when we hear the danger in the poet’s father’s voice: “Where were you, you idiots? ...Do you know what they can do to you?...They want blood again. Like Partition.” Although the father and his son-in-law “lift the wooden bar, secure the door,” the chill of violence stays with us. As the poet imagines telling her mother in “Mama, Who’d Have Thought,” “No, Ma, America is not safe.” Joseph speaks to all of us when she pleads with her mother’s spirit, “You didn’t want us to leave. You wept / for days. Forgive us. . . . / Protect us. Pease stay.”

“In Our Beautiful Bones,” written in the tradition of political poets like June Jordan and Claudia Rankine, is a satisfying book. We feel rage and tenderness, tragedy and hope. Joseph’s wit and her ability to spot beauty even in pain save us from despair.

Pramila Venkateswaran

Pramila Venkateswaran, poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island (2013-15) and co-director of Matwaala: South Asian Diaspora Poetry Festival, is the author of Thirtha (Yuganta Press, 2002) Behind Dark Waters (Plain View Press, 2008), Draw Me Inmost (Stockport Flats, 2009), Trace (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Thirteen Days to Let Go (Aldrich Press, 2015), Slow Ripening (Local Gems, 2016), The Singer of Alleppey (Shanti Arts, 2018) and We are Not a Museum (Finishing Line Press, 2022). Winner of the New York Book Festival award, she has performed her poetry internationally, including at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Festival Internacional De Poesia De Granada. She teaches English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, New York. Author of numerous essays on poetics as well as creative non-fiction, she is also the 2011 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association Long Island Poet of the Year. She is the President of Suffolk NOW.

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