and then
                                                   came unfastened
nothing stood still

I did not recognize even my hands
the bed her bed began to sway
or was it really my own body
                            shaking shaking shaking
giving up
she was gone

all I could see now was half their room
(as if one of my eyes was blinded)
the part with dad’s cupboard
                           and the clotheshorse began to shiver
with her wool socks her underclothes
her shawls her kurtas her pajamas                           

                           and her cup her glasses on the nightstand
beside her bed
started writhing
she is gone how did this happen
her head bobbed down upon her breast
her last gasp escaped
was there no one there to revive her

                        the sheets that held her close
the pillow that kissed her face
the mattress that sagged
under her soft weight
                           they are shaking themselves loose
from their skins

and coming to life before my eyes
are the fans
the floor
the water in the old rusted tub
the pictures on the wall

                           even the porcelain laughing Buddha from China
is breaking out of his glass case

and the crows and sparrows outside
make their merry mayhem
among the scarlet blossoms of the silk cotton tree
the old date palm with its new buds
the bael tree with the white sprays of bee-clogged flowers

                         how could this be where is she
she was here a minute ago

then the sun rose
and in my sleeplessness
I walked the verandah at dawn
(the verandah where we drank our cups of tea)
pale yellow was the sky
and murky the sun
                       and I saw a dark line etching itself
along the eastern horizon

it was years since
                      I had watched the bird migration
in my hometown my Kolkata
birds flocking
in the jheels and swamps
skirting the city

and now these birds I watched closely
                           they seemed like kantha embroidery

on a thin cotton blanket
leading me like steps
my mother
O my mother
                          you wrapped us in your love
your life’s blood spent for us

what’s torn is torn
                         and can never be mended

                         we have come undone
                         we have come undone
see how the windows
creak upon their bolts
the doors are turning to wings
and the sheets are assembling one by one
getting set to fly
                        and the furniture is lifting
everything is unhinged

                       and ready to follow the V of birds

I cling to your nightstand
as it rises up and flies
out of the window

a jagged line of odd shapes flying

                            behind the
black stiches
of birds
                           their way               somewhere


Chief engineer
of his ship which thrashes

in a storm only he can see; my father’s

illness has confounded his senses, his aged
brain slipping one day suddenly;

he wheels,

and kicks his thin blue- pajama-ed legs,
but before we can steady him, rams

into the steel cupboard near his bed,
forehead shuddering

like a mighty hull

running aground. To my brother,
the captain of a ship, and to us

his worried crew, he bellows
desperately—as if trying to be heard

over hurricane winds, Where are you

taking me? Ruby,
you are trying to trick me.

Sunny, calm down, Mum
says. Puts her arms around
him. You’re home. With us.

Get away from me, he shrieks,
slaps at our arms which steer

him away from sharp corners
of furniture bobbing like debris in the dark

light swirling around him, he shakes
his small grey head; and touches

one hardened hand absently
to his bloodied brow, holds the other hand
straight up, raises his voice,

Think I don’t know where I am?
–he sneers at us, you sailor boys

afraid we’re lost? He launches himself
at the captain– my brother, the navigator,

grabs his wrist, chuckles, Captain,
do you know the sea better than me?


I know how you love that word deck—

all those years you sailed around
the world. Began at Mazagaon 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.
Drowned slowly
in the salt sea that filled
your lungs.
I held your hand
for hours. 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.


Your voice is gone now, I cannot see you.
Where did you go, hidden in plain sight?
Should we lose our way, who’ll search for a clue?

And will you come back to find me anew?
Or will you be silent, a creature of night?
Your voice is gone now, I cannot see you

through broken webs of spiders and shattered dew.
Maybe fallen leaves will lead me to light,
should we lose our way, who’ll search for a clue?

I scour the shadows for people I knew,
but lover of silence, you’ve taken flight.
Your voice is gone now, I cannot see you.

Let’s end the game here, and the rules renew,
wipe our slate clean, learn again how to write?
Should we lose our way, who’ll search for a clue?

You’ve taken wrong turns, I’ve missed your best cue,
but somehow we’ve read some messages right.
Your voice is gone now, I cannot see you.
Now we’ve lost our way, who’ll search for a clue?


After twenty years in America,
we have a home of our own—

but you and mum are gone.

On the phone you cried
Take me to live with you

And my machine-gun-anger
spat fire at you—you, the hot-tempered
god. Why didn’t you visit when mum
desperately wanted to?
You always said No.

No, to everything.
Still I asked.
No doctor would give permission.
No airline would take the risk.
No. Insurance would never cover you.

Too late. Too late. Too late.


Is it ever too late?

Five miles away
blue birds flit
among the cottonwoods
near the Huron River.
They will not come here.

I lean on
the railing of the deck.
This is my ship. My sanctuary.
The pond mirrors the sky.

                                                 Blue birds fly you sang once
                                                 so why oh why can’t I?

Dearly Beloved,

We are
gathered here,
you and mum,
my love and I.

Among shrubs. Among flowers.

We sit on our deck.
We watch the birds.
They watch over us.


Birdsong wafts through
the open windows.
We set the table, light candles,
say shabbath shalom, hug long
and kiss noisily. Fill
tiny cups with raisin
sharbath till the burgundy
into the saucers. Our cups
runneth over. We drink,
the cool sweetness slakes
our thirst. And later, we sip
fine scotch together.
We argue
and laugh loudly.
Just like we used to.
Raise our voices, raise
our glasses.


We live

in two worlds and
between worlds.

You ruffle my curly hair. Always
wild. It is longer, more jagged. And has grey
in it now. Like ashes.

Junglee, you used to say, and mum
would run her fingers through its snarly
thickness as she tried to braid it. How could
this wildness ever leave us?

The sun is going down.
In the mud at the foot
of a beech tree a chorus
of chirps. Small clouds

rise. A curly-haired child
lit by sunset fire

sparrows bathe
in shimmering dust.


Zilka Joseph was nominated twice for a Pushcart prize, and for Best of the Net. Her work has appeared in PoetryPoetry Daily, Kenyon Review OnlineMQRAsia Literary Review, CHA, Review Americana, Gastronomica, and anthologies such as Cheers To Muses: Contemporary Works by Asian American Women and RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music. Her chapbooks, Lands I Live In and What Dread, were nominated for a Beyond Margins PEN America and a Pushcart award respectively. Her book of poems, Sharp Blue Search of Flame, published by Wayne State University Press, was a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book Award. Recently, she co-edited the e-book The Matwaala Anthology of Poets from South Asia. She teaches creative writing workshops, and is a freelance editor, manuscript coach, and mentor to writers in her community.