My Personal Favorite: Zilka Joseph

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Zilka Joseph

At this moment in time which of your own poems is your personal favorite, and why?

Sparrows and Dust

I believe! I believe!—

In the sparrow, happy on gravel;

—From Roethke’s Praise to the End!

The first time I noticed a cloud of dust rise up from the yard,

I squinted my six-year-old eyes and saw sparrows burrowing

in gravelly dirt. My mother told me, Look, they’re having

their daily dust bath! See how well they wash themselves.

Such a cleansing! Dust with dust, letting what’s broken, biting,

or dead flake off. I have always loved house sparrows even

when they drove us mad with their noisy fights and ferocious

nesting inside our second-floor Kolkata flat. Raining dirt,

twigs, eggs and just-born chicks on us when rival pairs fought

for territory on tops of cupboards, chinks in clutter and junk

stored everywhere. Our house was heaven, and a kind

of hell. Sometimes when streaking in from the hot sun,

one would fly into the fan’s spinning blades. With a soft

gasp, it would die at my feet, a burst of brown fluff. Sometimes,

how it struggled, poor thing, I would cradle its head as blood

seeped into my hand, give it water, whisper comfort. Often,

when I shut its eyelids, a vision of my own feathered body

lying lifeless below would flash by, as I hovered above. As if

I have been somewhere else. Weeping, I willed them—Come back

from the dead. Failed shaman, I never saved anyone or anything—

my parents, the animals and birds we loved, the locked flat fallen

to ruin. Now, years later, in short Michigan summers, I look for

flusters of dust, feel a warmth thrill in my aching bones when I see

the happy birds squirm in soil, then spring from a cloud, fluffing,

cheeping, cleansed, whole. I think of the little-known tale I read—

about the precocious, five-year-old trickster Jesus and the twelve

sparrows he shaped out of clay on a Shabbath evening as he played

by the river. When his father scolded that he had violated the holy

day, Jesus clapped, shouted to the birds to “remember me, you

who are now alive,” and the living sparrows rose and flew away.

–Previously published in Roethke Memorial Calendar, Saginaw Valley State University and Friends of Roethke Foundation

Zilka Joseph: My personal favorite right now is “Sparrows and Dust”. This time of year I remember my parents and their lives; their birthdays and their death anniversaries, my home in Kolkata and my childhood, the losses connected to places and people and creatures, and the fact that our lives are always in transition. I think my drive to remember and write about the past is a way of bringing back to life what’s gone or taken from me, preserving these worlds, stories and beings and recreating them in words, so that all is not lost. At the same time I am also deeply entwined with the present—my life in Michigan. I move seamlessly between past and present and they become one, and sometimes in a shining mystical moment I can shift from one dimension to the next, die and come alive, be in my body and yet seem to hover in another’s, be in this place and another place at almost the same time. But in reality, there is no way to defeat death and loss. At least not on this earth. The sense that what is broken will be made whole, and that there is really no death, just journeys and transitions, is what gives me solace, and inspires me to make, re-make these worlds with words. Also, it is interesting to me how the story of the young Jesus who was trying out his magical powers (Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a controversial 2nd Century narrative) on sparrows made of clay jumped into my mind while writing this poem. It was the perfect metaphor that helped me to finish what a Roethke poem called, “Praise to the End”, began.

Bio: Zilka Joseph was nominated twice for a Pushcart prize. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Poetry Daily, Frontier Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, MQR, Asia Literary Review, Review Americana, Gastronomica, and Cheers To Muses: Contemporary Works by Asian American Women. Her chapbooks, Lands I Live In and What Dread), were nominated for a PEN America and a Pushcart award respectively. Her book of poems, Sharp Blue Search of Flame,was published by Wayne State University Press in 2016 and was a finalist for the Foreword Indies Book Award. She teaches creative writing workshops, and is a freelance editor and manuscript coach.