Nature, Terror and Renewal in Zilka Joseph’s What Dread

Michelle Regalado Deatrick

Both the title and epigraph of Zilka Joseph’s powerful new poetry collection, What Dread, invoke William Blake’s “The Tyger,” and indeed, many of the poems are infused with a Blakean understanding of the connectedness of the human and natural worlds.  The first poem sets out the poet’s project—and the chapbook’s territory: 


                        and so in myriad tongues of jungle,

                        I sing of the wildness within.


The poems in What Dread mark a departure in both style and focus from Joseph’s first chapbook, Lands I Live In (Mayapple Press).  The earlier collection focused on what the poet gained and lost in her move, as an adult, from Calcutta to the Midwest; appropriately, the syntax and content were exuberant and discursive, the line lengths long.   By contrast, What Dread—a Semi-Finalist in the New Women’s Voices Contest sponsored by Finishing Line Press—possesses taut syntax, relatively short line lengths, forceful and frequent enjambment, and vivid, sometimes fantastic, imagery. 

What Dread’s urgency, irony, and—in places—dark humor are all deployed to explore the questions Joseph raises about pain and love, terror and beauty in the relationships that lie at the beating heart of many of these poems.  There’s the sensuous boldness of “Wildcat Love,” in which Joseph writes,


                        Let me brand memories of sun

                                    burning like the stripes of Bengal


                        wildcats into your arching back,

                                    claw red rivers into skin,


                        tear the lobes of your ears with my teeth...


            And there’s the raw, violent human tragedy of “Prey”: 


                        I heard about your grand catch...


                        Heard he beat your face in.

                        Tore you up like paper...


Balanced against the ferocity of these poems, though, is the lovely spiraling reciprocity and gentle alliteration of “Somewhere Deep”: 


                        I drown you in love, feed your dreams

                        to the fish of my flesh...


These poems, despite the very different relationships they explore, share something vital:  a world-view.  In the weltanschauung of What Dread, we are all predators—and we are all of us prey.  Within a single poem, the same being often plays both roles.  With language that accesses the dangerous, the wild, and the beautiful—and with her careful and detailed knowledge of the natural world—Joseph witnesses and describes a wide range of predator-prey interactions, often blurring the usual lines between the human and the non-human.

Joseph’s keen eye and knowledge of the natural world also give some of my favorite poems their unforgettable imagery, like the scorpions “high-stepping as dark horses, / with glowing amber babies on their backs” in “You Don’t Screw with Scorpions.”  Occasionally, Joseph slips into a less careful observed style, as in “Masters of Masks.”  But even the collection’s two or three less memorable poems offer pleasures of image and sound to the reader.  And nowhere does Joseph fall into the trap of sentimentalizing nature.  The insect narrator of “Borer,” one of the best in this really impressive little book, becomes a metaphor for the implacable, unfeeling force of nature even as it witnesses apocalypse:


                        ...I eat

                        through ringed history,


                        seven years of famine, seven of plenty,

                        taste the movement of seas...


                        ...and can even hear

                        hoof-beats of horsemen. 


For all the danger and fear in many of these poems, the final poem, “Warrior Woman,” ends with a gesture toward resurrection and renewal in which the images of woman, city and phoenix meld:  “Beware,” Joseph warns the forces of war and dominion, “I have already risen / from the ruins of my burning city.”  Out of terror and ruin:  the poet and poetry rise and remember.  I was alone at my desk as I read, but I had an impulse to rise myself, and to applaud.  This is good stuff. 

What Dread
By Zilka Joseph
Finishing Line Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59924-851-6



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