Ann Arbor writer Zilka Joseph shares two poems and an excerpt from her new book, "In Our Beautiful Bones"


Zilka Joseph and her book In Our Beautiful Bones

Zilka Joseph resides in Ann Arbor, but the poet's work is inspired by her Indian and Bene Israel roots and traversing Eastern and Western cultures.

Her latest book, In Our Beautiful Bones, was published this fall by Mayapple Press. It was nominated for a PEN America award and a Pushcart, and it's been entered for a Michigan Notable Book award: 

In Our Beautiful Bones traces various stages in the poet’s journey as an immigrant from India who makes a new life in the US, and her encounters with racism and otherness. In it she explores her Bene Israel roots, the origins of her ancestors, her life in Kolkata, the influences of British rule and a missionary education, her growing knowledge of what racism and marginalization means, how Indians and Indian culture is perceived and represented. While delving unflinchingly into the violence and global impact of colonialism, the weaponization of the English Language, the evils of tyranny and white supremacy, and the struggles of oppressed peoples everywhere, she creates powerful collages from mythology, folklore, fairy tales, Scripture, world cultures, literature, music, food, and current events. Traditional and experimental forms, historical information, sensory riches, wit and word play, and an unwavering and clear voice make this book a compelling read. In Our Beautiful Bones is a multi-layered, sharply ironic and sometimes pathos-filled critique of the world, and at the same time it is visionary and a triumph of the human spirit.

We asked Joseph if we could publish a poem from In Our Beautiful Bones and she was kind enough to send us two poems and "two short extracts from a long and significant collage poem. I chose these three as I think they offer a glimpse of various complex aspects of my book," she said in an email.

Also, Joseph spoke with Nancy Naomi Carlson and Nawaaz Ahmed (who we interviewed recently) about In Our Beautiful Bones on October 6 as part of Literati's At Home series and we've included that video below as well as three previous Pulp pieces on the poet.



--The Upanisads explain how wisdom can be absorbed through sound, how the ear is a vessel –the receiver of divine messages

The lightning fell, and I only knew
that it entered my eyes, and thunder 
repeated words in my ears 
I could not understand

in the grey-blue light of evening.
A sheet of silver drew itself 
like a shroud over my car – 

its engine an animal thrashing
in the hold, my heartbeat
like oars slamming hard

against every climbing wave,
my hands on the steering wheel 
clawing at it as if it were

a raft. At sixteen, my father sailed
the Bombay steamships, nearly 
deafened by their sound; 

gales, ice, St. Elmo’s fire striking 
on the high seas, then sailed diesel
vessels through squalls

when the sky was black and the water 
black, and the sailor’s hearts
shrunk from fear – 

all listening, on deck and on the bridge 
and in the bowels 
of the engine room, 

to what the thunder said. And turning
into a vacant lot on Opdyke 
near Pontiac, the storm 

washed me clean
off the road. Wipers swept leaves 
and yellow-black sky into sea 

foam. I watched the windshield bulge
like a goatskin. It strained,
but held. Then a dam of white 

light broke, the wall of water 
shattering it’s cargo, and me 
inside it like a seed 

giving itself up to water 
and to wind. In the west, 
the sunlight crashing 

in the broken branches 
of oaks, burned a tunnel
of sienna through 

which the bow 
of my ship rose 
to meet the horizon, 

and my father, the Chief,
roared to his engineers,
their faces streaked with oil 

and boiler suits sweat drenched; 
men whose torn lips 
bled as another peal shook

the flailing vessel, and we turned
our faces to the upper 
deck. Like our Jewish

ancestors wrecked on the
Konkan coast thousands 
of years ago, we waited 

but no calm came
until the wind suddenly
fell. My car almost shoved

on to its side, now only swayed,
a metal cradle
spat from the mouth

of thunder. I smelled its breath,

its teeth left bloodless marks
on my skin, my bones 
shook, and though it was gone

I felt its pull, a lift, 
a nameless terror,
and my deafened ears

received every word it said –
what it had said 
to my ancestors

what it had said
to my father
to his men 

as it had let the sailors go,
as it had let my father go 
and let us all go home.


O Say Can You See 

look into my eyes America
how easy it is 
to dream in techni-color

o say white say red say blue
and every color
we who made and make you still
we have built 
your towers 
your tracks your bridges 
with our bones

from sea to shining sea this is our home 
home is where the heart is 
yes all the broken ones 

we pick your fruit sing hosanna
we build our hearths here 
we bake bread that we break together 
we give thanks for each grain 
we feed the hungry 
for we have known hunger

see this mouth it sings peace
in every language

watch my face shine it will light up 
your pavements your alleys 

your castles your shacks
your thirsty fields
like a harvest moon
after blight and famine
and give back to us
the dollars like shekels 
you have stolen forever

study then the maps inside my eyes 
see the world 

yes feel my heartbeat 
touch my human skin 
it is real

and see our scars they are the same 
our scars we carry them thick and ugly
we are no stranger to dust and ashes
here is my war-torn hand 
here are my lips let me kiss your cheek

where do we end 
where do we begin

when I say love I mean you
when I say home I mean you

when I say to you
we are so beautiful do not turn away  
do not shatter America America
for richer for poorer
we are your beautiful bones 
your heart 
your veins 
are made of us
why are you afraid our blood is the same color
our skin so easy to dissolve
frail border between this world and the next

oh sing with me sing with me what is made one
should not be pulled asunder
we who are embraced 
by sweet Lady Liberty 
we who are made so beautiful 
so varied 
so new 

so whole again
inside the harbor 
of your arms oh America
we are you do you not see

do not lead us into darkness
do not
hate our gods our children
throw us not into camps prisons ghettos
smash your jackboots into us

but deliver yourself 
from that dagger 
the dagger you can become


Two excerpts from the collage poem “Whose Voices Were Heard”

Mother, mother. mother
there's too many of you crying
will you say why have you forsaken me
will you say forgive them for they know not what they do
will you shoot will you put your hands up and still be shot
will your neck be knelt upon till your breath is gone
will you say this is all illusion maya O maya
will you say I am not my body
will you say what’s going on
Brother, brother, brother
will there be a time for us a place for us

still I rise still I rise
O sing in our own myriad tongues 
in our own voices
stir it up little darlin’

the goddess dances on the head of the demon
the Madonna crushes the snake with her foot
Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya 
from darkness unto light

we know where we’re going 
yes we know where we’re from
may we move freely
through the passage between lives

can you see us dancing in the dark and in the rain 
and in the moonlight the firelight the lamplight

dancing in the sun
in our own shining skin
in our beautiful bones

Visit for more information.

➥ "Zilka Joseph's new chapbook, 'Sparrows and Dust,' finds parallels between humans and birds" [Pulp, July 12, 2021]
➥ "Zilka Joseph on Michigan poets and her favorite Ann Arbor literary haunts" [Pulp, September 7, 2019]
➥ "Review: Zilka Joseph Poetry at Ann Arbor Book Festival" [Pulp, June 30, 2016]