On that cold, wintery day of January, International Neighbors cozied up in the warm company of each other with a cup of hot tea and home baked refreshments to listen to the heartwarming poems of Zilka Joseph which she specially selected for International Neighbors. It was inspiring to hear the poet’s own voice reading her poetry. Zilka read from her chapbooks “Lands I Live In”, “Sharp Blue Search of Flame”, and one of her poems recently published in the Poetry Magazine.
Many thanks to Zilka for taking us to a poetic journey to all the lands she lived in, her natural ability to connect with her audience, and for educating us about the rich diversity of Indian society during the Q/A session following her reading.
We were nicely surprised to hear about another talent of our longtime member’s Kamlesh who read her own poem following the loss of a dear friend. “The Members Favorites” table featured a large selection of inspiring poetry from the greatest poets of all time, including Rumi, Coleridge, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda, and poems authored by our own talented members.
You can read the poems which Zilka read us below. Some of them may speak to your experiences.
Poetry Reading with Zilka Joseph
January 17, 2019
On a blazing summer day,
we are last in line,
standing at the end
of a long white vinyl shelter
swelling like a hot air balloon
full of stale perfume, restless feet,
B.O. and icy palms, just
at that very edge where
the rays of sun reach in
and grab our ankles.
Listening to many languages,
guessing what they say,
shifting from foot to foot,
we crawl closer to the door.
It is nearly two hours,
we can go inside now.
The air-conditioning cools
the beads of sweat t our temples.
We are frisked,
then line up again,
against the wall.
Children with bubble-gum
stuck to their sandals
scramble onto laps
or try to climb walls.
We sit in hard chairs
waiting for our number to be called.
Faces, tired and tense,
from every nation wait too.
Green cards dangle in the balance.
And old man with no teeth
and green sweatpants is helped inside
by a man in his twenties
wearing Harley Davidson boots.
They speak little English.
T-shirts shriek Tommy Hilfiger,
Florida, Six Flags America.
People fidget with their buttons, hair.
Those desperate to suck cigarettes
rush outside, come back quickly.
The sharp edge
of my blue passport
rips the yellow envelope,
nudges my hand.
Dust still sits
in its creases.
It remembers the old country,
knows its days
an like a cat in a cage,
lets itself be taken
to undisclosed destinations.
–From Lands I Live In
Introduction to Circles
Perhaps I was confused
by the arched glass of Sears tower,
the silver El winding the loop, its roar
echoing in the canyons of buildings,
the whine of the saxophone
scraping Saks’ rotating doors, and the low
growls from the bearded man,
his legless body in fatigues,
by American Girl Place. Maybe I was dizzy
because while looking for the bus stop for the 145
I wandered into a circle of people
screaming don’t buy fur, don’t kill
the animals just outside Marshal Fields
on Michigan avenue. So when Martha
asked me to join her book club
a group of fortyish women, with high-
profile careers, all big business school
alumna, I was overwhelmed by her kindness,
thinking it would be great to make
friends, treat myself to intellectual
discussion. They had chosen Arundhati Ray’s
The God of Small Things and thought I could
tell them about India. It was strange
hearing the names of the characters
from their mouths. How come they asked me
you speak such good English?
Then asked about arranged marriage.
Told me later, of course, I knew, didn’t I
that they were all divorced? And now dating
furiously, and finding only frogs? No princes,
even in Europe where they traveled for business.
Maria told me she had immersed
herself in the Japanese language
and culture, because her ex was
Japanese, but being Catholic refused
to give her a divorce. Nancy said she married
a man from Norway but living there
depressed her, so they moved here,
and he looked for a job, but wasn’t happy.
Killed himself while she was at work,
showed me where she had found him
when she came home. As I listen
I feel the pin-pricks of curious eyes, an unspoken
rush of questions they’re too polite to ask but finally do–
about the oppression of women,
about my being a professional
but barred from working for five years,
and the fact that I’m ‘still’ married. 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. They ask me
to pick a book for next time. I choose
Song of Solomon. They have barely heard
of it. Two of them say they’ve seen Toni Morrison
on the Oprah show, and then ask,
you do see Oprah there? Is this how an ambassador feels? At least
diplomats are groomed on what to say, and how,
while I fumble now, my voice, like smoke rings
telescoping through each other
in this soft-lit living room. I notice only
a vase of purple irises, in my hand
a fluted paper plate with purple prints
where the spirals of pinwheel sandwiches
filled with cream cheese and sundried tomato paste
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.
– From Lands I Live In
Ten Takes on Snow
1 My first winter in by Lake Michigan
covered me with white, cold, alien snow
till there was no light left
in my tropical eyes.
2 My fingers felt snow once,
long ago in Rohtang pass in the Himalayas.
Who knew one day I would be
pressed in its white pages
like a dead flower?
3 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.
4 I see a girl in a faraway country
lost in a field yellow with mustard flowers.
Now, I watch a woman
staring out of the window
at a Land of Snow,
and Snow people who do not know her.
5 Numb and awkward,
my frozen fingers
grasp at snow, fresh fallen.
They try to make a snowball
like a child’s first try
at kneading chappati dough.
6 Fantastical and magical
the flurries flutter and whirl,
My state of mind exactly.
7 Snow-flake, snow-fall, snow-drift, snow-bound.
How do I explain snow
to friends who have never seen it?
8 My father lives on that side of the world
where winter is a moth-eaten
wool sweater worn from November to January.
Rubbing his chest while watching TV,
he watches the blizzard rage on the news.
Stay away from the snow,
he warns me on the phone.
9 When the snowstorm grew fiercer
they called it a whiteout.
Like you could wipe your life clean
and start again.
10 We walked knee deep in Chicago snow
like excited children.
Like fishermen battling up a salmon-braided stream.
So much harder than
pushing through the sharp-bladed rice fields
when we lived in the sun.
– From Lands I Live In
When Dad brought the silver-
grey Garrard home, I rushed to see,
breathe the holy, plastic-oil smell,
feel the shiny steel, the springy
record bed. I was six.
Beatles it was, from morning till night,
the big green apple spinning madly,
the 45s stacked atop the magic
tower, turning into a swirling black
pool, ring within ring
within ring racing around. My breath
steamed up my pink framed
glasses, I watched the stylus lift off,
glide, and perch
like a stiff bird on the inner
edge of the record and sink
automatically, onto the whirling dervish
of a disc. Money Can’t Buy Me Love,
It’s Been A Hard Day’s Night,
I Saw Her Standing There I sang
while I wrote pages in cursive
for mean Mrs. Rice, sang at the table,
sang in my sleep. I danced with my teenaged sister
and brother every night. Our ankles
were slender, my moves fast
when I jived. Steps my feet remembered
long after my birthday, after they brought me
back from hospital. Dad carrying me,
my limbs like twisted wood.
From Sharp Blue Search of Flame
The Bharat Natyam Dancer
It’s Shiva’s Rudra tandav
my mother performs
dance of destruction
the earth with flame
not the great god’s three wild locks
or river Ganga
bursting through matted curls
but her thick black rope of hair
of her knees. Her sari pleats
open and close
the pallav’s silken sweep bound
in a belt of gold
her kohled eyes, how pure
the gestures of her ever-changing
mudras. But where was
your fury O sweet mother
Nataraj, where your flame?
Did your three eyes
and deaf your holy ears
to her song,
the sounds of a hundred brass
thrumming on her ankles
No No you heard her feet the bells the beat of lighting feet
her desire you heard
her fire shatter mount Kailash
your home your god-abode your manly
you heard the audience
knew all along her father’s will
that he would say to her
no more! The tongue
the tongue of every ankle bell
ripped out her heart a hollow
her art the world
turned to ash by you
you jealous, jealous lord of dance
– From Sharp Blue Search of Flame
The Hands that Lit the Sabbath Lamps
My mother’s hands –what did they dream?
Tough and weathered they are,
heavy, thick, square-
nailed, strong; did a lifetime
in a man’s world; bore the weight of all our needs,
of a mother-in-law’s tongue, Dad’s quick temper. How hard
those pale hands slaved –
tinted with turmeric, smelling of garlic, cilantro,
or cloves, cinnamon and rose petals on high holidays
and at night Ponds Cold Cream. For special
times she wore
nail polish for silk sari evenings, or gold jewelry events
dad’s official dinners, for weddings. The rougher
her fingers grew, the more
she slid into her shell,
hiding her sad heart. Just as her mother’s
had even before the fourth,
the unwanted daughter –my mother,
was born. When did her palms
turn to steel? Child given extra
work, less education than her sisters, even less play?
These hands so old now, so brave,
what did they dream? These hands that lit
our sabbath lamps, our lives? Did they ever have soft
skin? How wise these hands
with cracks, and curling early
to fit inside my father’s palms. Now arms weak,
heads bowed, they stand by the door,
reach to touch the mezuzah,
say Sh’ma Israel, kiss
each other on the lips… Holding hands when they leave
the house, she leads him –
the half-blind head of the house,
taking one shaky step at a time.
– From Sharp Blue Search of Flame
The Rice Fields
Miles of them grow in my carry-on
and travel with across continents
but the customs officers are suspicious
they eye my old suitcase and ask me to open it
Pickles? they ask sniffing deeply
prodding a packet or two
say Sure ma’am you’ve got no jeera or chilies?
(now they’ve learned the hindi word for cumin
so the new trick is to joke with us) And one time
I saw three burly officers question
an elderly couple disheveled
as I was from 20 plus hours of travel
and as disoriented (and yes
as usual all the usual “foreign” suspects
are sent along to “Agriculture”) and
they poked around in their overstuffed bags
(where some rice fields appeared but
they couldn’t see them of course) and
one officer said Duck? Bombay Duck?
It’s a fish?? Dried fish your son
wanted? Sorry no fish allowed
or birds (The officers looked
at each other again and again:
expressions priceless) So another time I land
at Detroit airport and I shake my head
at the silver-haired officer
say Sir, no, no pickles meat or cheese
I buy them here at Bombay Grocers
and Patels (Give them a sweet Colgate smile)
Yes, yes, sweets, only made of lentil No dairy, no dairy
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 where ever we go
– From Poetry Magazine