Culture & Society

Heart Beats Like Oars

‘English is my foreign father tongue.’ The author seeks the DNA of our languages and histories.

Heart Beats Like Oars by Zilka Joseph
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Voyage

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.

A-Z of Foreign Anguish

A is for anguish says my mummy tongue, my lingo lango la la
But English is my foreign father tongue daddy lang blab blab
Colonists with your white gaze told our stories. With classic
demagoguery, tyranny, manifest destiny, excuses, you forged
evil tales to transform us into demons. Crushed the truths with vile,
flippant lies. What about us? How you ravaged us? Scepter and staff
grinds down our culture. Kings of erosion and erasure, how long
has your terror ruled? Your knives at our children’s throats? Who washed
Indians out of every picture? Who conquered our lands crying—I
just come in peace!  Guns in your hearts, greed in your DNA. The Raj
kept us slaves in our own land! Took our tea, spices, jewels, broke our back,
lashed and tortured us. What’s in your Crown? Our Kohinoor! Oh cruel
masters! Recorders of the “inferior race”. Ah, clever sahib and mem!
Natives? Like insects you labeled us! With fine calipers, condescension.
Oppressor, the nightmare still lives, the hate systems that never go.
Pain is embedded in our bones. You poisoned our wells. Now, you dump
questions on us? You teach us civility? Listen to us first, our A & Q
right out of our mouths. You shoved the father tongue down our 
“savage” (and shithole countries’) throats. Destroyed histories, literatures,
tongues. Made us ugly in our own eyes, made us hate ourselves, split
us, shattered us, turned Hindu against Muslim, Muslim against Hindu. 
Viceroys and priests, you ruled, you hunger-converted us. Oh holy Rev.
Whiteman, was sweet Jesus’ face fair? He was a humble dark-skinned Jew!
Xanax—will it help? When we invite you to our open table, you vex
yourself! Cry we’re your current foreign anguish? That we can sway 
zeitgeist, world biz, karma. Got heart? Got Hinglish? Chutzpah? Pizzazz?

-- after the “Discourse on the Logic of Language” by M NourbeSe Philip

Freedom Song with Ginsberg, Dylan, Marley

It occurs to me that I am America
Ginsberg can you rant to us 
Dylan can you moan to us 
Marley can you wail to us
America you are beautiful
sometimes you have the biggest heart I know
sometimes you have the smallest heart I know
but please 
get out of the way if you can’t lend a hand
for the times they are a changin’
O prophets of the people
will the walls keep marching on
are we
disposable animals
Come you masters of war you that build all the guns
it’s your own children you riddle with bullets
fling upon the rubbish heap of history
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns
the giants of the castle have no mercy
they grinds our bones to make their bread
eat our little children fee fi fo fum
O prophets and militias of Mammon
and Machiavelli and Monsanto
Even Jesus would never forgive what you do
O let us sing our true true songs
our songs of freedom
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
oh emancipate yourself
emancipate yourself
None but ourselves can free our minds

(Zilka Joseph has authored five collections, the most recent being In Our Beautiful Bones. Her books have been nominated for awards, and two have been finalists for the Foreword INDIES. She won a Notable Best Indie Book award. Her writing reflects her Indian and Bene Israel roots, and Western cultures.)

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