I don’t know the color of a hummingbird’s throat. But when Zilka Joseph brings alive the “green-steel warrior”, I feel as though I’ve recognized the crimson feathers on its dainty neck as an old memory, a remnant of childhood held captive by poetry. That, I suppose, is the secret to Joseph’s pen — the ability to blur the boundaries between her world and those of her readers. This is precisely what she does in Sparrows and Dust, Joseph’s 30-page, Pushcart-nominated homage to her identity as a South Asian-American immigrant and more. As the name of this chapbook suggests, Joseph often draws upon the behaviors and appearances of birds, from beady-eyed sparrows to golden eagles, to explore the depths of her experience. In Sparrows and Dust, Zilka Joseph flits between memory and migration, fight or flight, in this pithy tribute to the birds that have shaped her.
Joseph is a veteran poet and creative writing instructor, whose work has graced the pages of publications from Asia Literary Review to The Kali Project. Her experience with both writing poems and selecting them shines through in this book, which consists of only 19 poems. Although the brief Table of Contents left me unsure of Joseph’s work at first, later added to my appreciation of her strong sense of word economy and selection.
Every piece of this collection has a purpose, from the emphatic “Listen!” that forces readers to halt in their tracks in “For the Birds” to the “Please stay.” that closes off “Mama, Who’d Have Thought” like a lingering whisper. The poems themselves are generally short and pithy trips into her personal life, with choppy lineation that leaves the poems structurally “wispy”. In fact, that’s what struck me when I read this book for the first time; I felt as though the poems themselves tangibly reminded me of birds’ feathers, slipping out of the tongue and into flight. I suppose herein lies my only critique for this book; many of the structurally similar poems feel clumped together, rather than interwoven with the more visually experimental “Negative Capability” and “So Much”. Thematically, Joseph alternates between nostalgia and quiet introspection, bringing both her childhood home in Kolkata and her current wintry abode in Michigan alive. There’s an aura of desolate solitude to Sparrows and Dust; beyond herself and the birds she chooses to elucidate her emotions with, other characters feel like distant and sad recreations of Joseph’s memory. She channels this emotion beautifully in her leading titular poem, where she mentions how she has “never saved anyone or anything — my parents, the animals, and birds”.
It’s interesting how Joseph can catch you so off-guard with moments like these. How despite her colorful illustrations of sparrows and their immutable relationship with the natural world, Joseph still creates a world that can be so empty and unforgivably fleeting. It’s not a happy space, but it’s where she thrives as a writer. Some of my favorite moments in this book are where Joseph slips into vulnerable dramatic monologues, whether that means begging with the spirit of her mother in “Mama, Who’d Have Thought” or describing the accidental death of an insect in “Good Intentions”. Strangely enough, she finds a way to convey the importance of both tragedies to her readers, despite our perceived emotional distance from her personal life or the seeming insignificance of an insect’s life. Each time, she leaves the readers clinging to an atmosphere that she has now made barren, by both reflecting on her past mistakes and also on her inability to reverse or rectify them. Personally, I felt especially forlorn after reading “Mama, Who’d Have Thought” and “Scenes from the Deck”; I rarely recognize the mortality in my own parents, and found myself seeking some kind of resolution or closure when the poems were over. This way, I think it becomes easier to understand Joseph — just as she clings onto her memories, we will have to cling to her poems, despite the way they end.
Sparrows and Dust is a short and good read, which does not force readers to feel certain emotions but invokes them regardless. Joseph’s third chapbook is illusive, rarely indulgent, and like the birds, she illustrates, never idle.
With the author’s permission, I have chosen to reproduce her piece, “Scenes from the Deck” in this review to offer a preview into the book:
Scenes from the Deck
I know how you love that word deck, Dad—
all those years you sailed around
the world. Began at Mazagon Docks,
Mumbai. 25 paise wages. Steamship days.
Diesel days. Deck, bridge, engine room
was home to you, Chief Engineer,
with the booming voice, always in charge,
everyone’s boss. Nothing changed
even when you grew old
and blind. You still wouldn’t listen.
Too late. Too late. Mum sank quickly,
suddenly she was gone. You fought
the storm, your ship still
strong and sea-worthy.
in the salt sea that filled
You clutched my hand
for hours. I sang Somewhere
over the Rainbow
by your hospital bed.
You moaned the words
inside the mask muzzling
your mouth. The voice
that bellowed a thousand commands.
Oh my father. Eagle with claws full
of thunderbolts. Now lying shattered
on the deck.
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication.