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Michigan Bookmark: “Sharp Blue Search of Flame” captures physical pain, erotic joy

Wayne State University Press, 2016

The poems in Zilka Joseph’s second book, Sharp Blue Search of Flame, sear with poignant images and brilliant diction. Whether she’s reinventing myths from Jewish and Hindu Indian culture or commenting on the contemporary American scene, this poet speaks with the authority of lived wisdom. The range of experiences she captures spans from physical pain to erotic joy. Though troubling, even terrifying at times, this world we inhabit still holds great beauty, Joseph insists.

On a technical level, Joseph executes stringent poetic forms as deftly as she does free verse. One of the books most stunning poems, “Mudras: Language of Hands,” begins with a twenty-line palindrome, a poem that reads the same backwards and forwards, before moving into subsequent sections of free verse. The staggered couplets and monostiches, single-line stanzas, flicker across the page in homage to the traditional Indian dance from which the poem draws its name. “Mudras” ends with the lines, “my three eyes / of lightning // strike the earth // the drummer drums // in my skin / the dance begins // again," offering the reader a glimpse of the joy the poet salvages in a deeply-flawed world. The book also features a concrete poem and a contrapuntal, a poem featuring two voices than can be read together or separately. Few contemporary American poets utilize these forms with such clear-eyed purpose.

Although Joseph writes about locales as disparate as Michigan and Dharamsala, the tacit threat of violence, specifically violence toward women, is ever-present, regardless of setting. Joseph’s critique of patriarchal control manifests most pointedly in the ways she reconfigures common eastern and western myths. When she writes of the Genesis creation myth, “She [Eve] knew she would always be the sun / even when the gates closed behind her // and though History would try new tricks, / twist orange to apple, // the men with missing bones, / the snakes, would stay the same," the reader feels the poem burst into sharp blue flame, scorching the story that has so maimed the Judeo-Christian conception of gender.

Joseph also achieves moments of tenderness, especially in the tour de force, “Rabiya: In Mourning.” Not since Larry Levis, the late 20th century poet whose book elegy revolutionized the poem of mourning, has America seen a poet tackle the elegy with such empathy, and grace. “Walk slowly Rabiya, / to the glass doors / of the battered hearse, // whose driver is an old Sikh man dressed in white whose eyes are quiet. // Walk slowly up to her / whom you love, / sing your duas. / Say khuda hafiz. / She will hear you. / She will thank you, / touch the top of your head, and say / don’t cry. / But you will weep a river. And so will I." For Zilka Joseph knows how quickly the peril and the beauty of this world can break us.

John Freeman publishes poetry under the name "Cal Freeman." He is the author of the book Brother of Leaving and the chapbook Heard Among the Windbreak

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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