“It’s the Nature of the Beast”: A Review of What Dread

   and I
   hear dread in the voices
   of those who dig deep, fly,
   search beyond light,
   inhabit earth, ocean, sky
These lines, stated in the first poem of Zilka Joseph’s latest chapbook, What Dread, capture the unsettling journey—brought on by the restlessness of desires—of the author into the pain of this world.
There is a spiritual struggle that penetrates these poems concerned with survival. The fifteen poems that comprise What Dread (Finishing Line Press, 2011) focus on a primal fear, the “dread," that is death. Throughout these poems the speakers strive, in varying forms and through various decisions, to overcome this confrontation, even though death is inevitable.
Joseph displays that we are all predators, to the degree by which we pay attention to what we want and how we pursue it, and cautions us that we also fall victim to, and are “bristling captives” of these desires. Joseph writes in “Masters of Masks”: “There is another layer of you. The innermost.” Upon us a spiritual turbulence sets which is due to what the animal part of us seeks to possess. There is the borer who speaks:
I inherit hard jaws and hunger
from the genes of my ancestors.
Then at the end of the same poem, “Borer,” the speaker states:
I…am destined to devour,
drive my stake
through the hearts of trees,
my nail through the palm
of every hand that feeds me.
This is the creature that earlier admits its:
for light at the end
of the tunnel.
These lines convey the diet of a borer, an insect who eats from the inside of the tree outward, as the poem says, “I eat through ringed history.” Insomuch as we “inherit” we are “bristling captives” of biology, of evolution. Thus, that animal within remains, the one who wants to “devour,” to stake its claim, the animal that wrestles to survive. The “light at the end / of the tunnel” implies the creature striving for its desire, to fill itself with the fuel it needs, attempting to ward off death.
Unlike the borer who attempts to fend death away there is the albatross that accepts its presence (or non-presence, if that may be). In “The Albatross’ Call” the albatross states, “This body is real,” who, with the sailor that shot it from the sky, turned into a “heap of hard-bleached bones / on the undone decks of a ship, / never reaching harbor or home.” The announcement that “This body is real” is an assertion of the spirit’s presence here in this world and an acknowledgement of the temporality of physical forms, affirmed in the last few lines aforementioned. In this poem there is the sailor’s terrible desire for a trophy, his “very own charm,” which the bird becomes. The bird’s desire, by calling up a storm, is vengeance. Both, though battling each other, are really at war with death, and through their desires attempt to save something of themselves, or at least try to calm the fearing part within them.
The lines from the poem “Wild Muse” presented at the beginning of this review are followed by:
and so in myriad tongues of jungle,
I sing of the wildness within.
Whether you “inhabit earth, ocean, sky," if you choose to “dig deep, fly, / search beyond light” it’s of little significance—“A feathered terror / flies into our throats.”
Hear the lamenting echo of this in the last lines of “Penelope Speaks to the Women”:
When mighty gods have fallen to that song—
what then of lesser mortals of this world?”
Joseph seems to claim that singing opens the self—a vulnerability that allows a greater perception towards the wildness of the world outside us and grants that capacity to reconcile, to come to terms with, the imminence of death. We are all prey. As Joseph writes in the penultimate poem of the collection, “The degree of deadliness differs…. You will get bitten. / That is the nature of the beast.”

Works by Zilka Joseph

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