‘Sailor, Storm’ and other poems

Zilka Joseph

2022

Introduction

In Markus Zusak’s novel ‘The Book Thief’, the young Liesel says of her father: Sometimes I think my papa is an accordion. When he looks at me and smiles and breathes, I hear the notes. If Hans Hubermann is an accordion caught in the politics of World War II Nazi Germany, in these poems, the speaker’s Bene Israel father is a ship tossed about in the personal storm of illness and gloom. If one represents hope, melody and humour, the other embodies adventure, rebellion, exasperation, and eventually, release.

The poems transition from detailing the ‘Sailor’s actual life to a more metaphorical journey across stormy oceans that suggest dementia and mental decline. This second kind of voyage is invested with images from the first. We’re told it is ‘a storm only he can see’ and he is ‘shuddering like a mighty hull… trying to be heard over hurricane winds’. The poems are poignant for how they employ the idiosyncrasies of speech; we see an abundance of images like ‘how he piled carton / upon carton, dubba on dubba / on the first two shelves of the tall gray / Godrej steel cupboard’ or ‘be careful when you open the door — or dhadham!’ Read together, this suite marks the coming together of several different journeys, spanning the transitions of not just the Sailor but the speaker as well.

— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Sailor, Storm

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.

Mum 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 weathered hand absently
to his bloodied brow, holds

the other hand straight up.
I can hear him think

Oh, I don’t know where I am?
–sneering at us,

you’re afraid I’m lost?

He launches himself
at the captain—my brother, and at us,

wants this ambush to end, eyes
fiercely screaming

do you know the sea better than me?

 


 

Fisherman, Fisherman

When it’s the right time, your dad will travel here,
my mother says to me one dawn visit.
I never see her. Just her soft voice
brushes my cheek.

He will see this pond by your house
and he’ll be as excited as a child. Even
though he will say loudly, hah, it’s only
a small man-made pukur, he’ll love
the birds and the fish. I’m sure he’ll
order you to quickly-quickly go

to our flat in Kolkata, take out his fishing rods,
bring hooks, lures, floats he collected over those what—
25 odd years, that he sailed the world
as Chief? And then that fancy gear
your brother, a ship’s Captain then,
bought for him on his many voyages.
You know how he piled carton
upon carton, dubba on dubba
on the first two shelves of the tall gray
Godrej steel cupboard in our bedroom.
Be careful when you open the door—
or dhadham! They’ll crash down,
hurt you. The dust

will be fierce. No one has been inside our locked
flat for years. But when Dad passed, he followed
me to our bolted front door, and we kissed
our broken mezuzah. We floated through,
touched his lumpy chair here, our old bed there,
but we were so shaken, we could bear no more.
We left immediately. Now I live around you,
my sweet girl. Your dad

will arrive here soon. You know him, he has
to be the boss. He’ll say—don’t forget
the Shakespeare fishing rod! He’ll wink
at you. He laughed at that name
just to bug you, rascal he was! See
that dry patch of grass? He will choose

the right spot to set up everything—just like
he did after he retired, when he went
with his friends to those well-stocked
Army talabs, those lakes inside
Fort William. Grass carp, catfish, tilapia, katla
were the fish he caught and if these were the right size,
he brought then home. Then, his fisherman friends—
died one by one. Some so young. Remember?

Remember? But he’ll start again here.
You know him.

What did you say?
You are so funny!
You’re right. When he reads the sign
by the pond that says:

.                                          No Fishing

he will throw his arms up and shout—
Ha! That’s bullshit!

Wait. Listen. Can you hear him laugh?
Can you hear him cast his line?

 


 

Last Ship

Your last ship waits.
I say a hundred Shemas.

May you breathe
easy and free, old sailor,
may your glass of amber

whisky be chilled and clinking
and glinting with blue
shards of glaciers

and ready for you
to raise when
you reach your final port.

May your lungs
be whole again.

May your heart
boom louder than
your bellowing voice

and the mad thunder
of engines you tended
in the bowels of ships,

and the Baruch Hashem
you must have roared
once you had safely docked.

See, every vessel in the fleet
you sailed, whose flaws
and strengths you knew

like the back of your
weather-beaten hand,
wait in the harbor,

blasting
a Master salute on their horns.

They will follow
in your wake.

You were a fighter until the end
when the salt sea rose
in your cells, filled
your lungs inch by inch,
crested, lifted you up

and away from me, crossed you
over to a faraway shore.

Contributor

Zilka Joseph

Zilka Joseph is an internationally published poet who has authored five collections, the most recent being In Our Beautiful Bones. Her books have been nominated, been finalists or won awards for PEN America, Pushcart, Foreword INDIES and Best Indie Book awards. Her work reflects her Indian and Bene Israel roots, and Western cultures. She teaches creative writing, is a manuscript advisor, and a mentor to writers in her community. www.zilkajoseph.com

Acknowledgments

Banner image based on Caspar David Friedrich’s oil painting Das Eismeer (The Sea of Ice, 1823-34). It is sometimes (allegedly, erroneously) referred to as Die gescheiterte Hoffnung (The Wreck of Hope). Original image from Wiki Commons. Many of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings refer to core set of themes (alienation, loneliness, aging, and death) through a core set of objects (fog, winter landscapes, ships, the Rückenfigur).  Few, however, reveal the violence and rage manifest in the Das Eismeer.

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