Homecoming: Joanna Ezekiel, Valley Press
Joanna Ezekiel has worked as a teacher, bookseller and librarian; she has had a British Jewish upbringing, and is of Indian Jewish heritage. She is the author of five books of poetry, and Homecoming is her second full collection. Typical is its opening poem as the writer prepares to return home – “I’ll want my navy frock that sweeps the knee, / Vermilion lipstick, brogues”, and remembers “how caramel bubbles, then hardens, / bittersoft edges burn my fingers.”
The cooking and domesticity become analogous; whoever is waiting for her will wait “in dishwater civvies, whistle, scuff gravel / at a corner baked with rubble / where, underfoot, streets are thin gravy” as she plunges “through daylight’s / silted sugars towards you, rinse out / the unwound clock … (‘Homecoming’)
There are food references throughout her work: chicken, coriander, corn beef pie, paprika, peas and rice, plump cakes, dough, chapattis. Home is also about embroidery, “thread magenta, cinnamon, aqua, / I taught him blackwork …" (‘Priceless’), and family:
Nan sits alone, no apron,
frowns at my swinging legs.
I imagine long grass swaying
in time to Hebrew rhythms.
From the children’s table
I gaze at the square lawn
of dance floor, sewn with disco beats.
My little brother wears a bow tie.
We clap our hands.
(‘Bridesmaid, Essex, 1976’)
You wrote as if a silver screen
was big enough to hold a world
where your descendants would scatter –
England, Ahmedabad, Israel, Canada.
(‘For Joseph David, my great-grandfather who wrote Hollywood films’).
There are forays into Syria:
Sunrise spreads and behind
the sky booms and booms
a burnt clock close by
smoke thickens to blue
It moves like a demon
tastes of mortar and blood.
(‘Tower block, Syria’)
and Mumbai, though even here Ezekiel is reminded of home:
Ships old moored in the distance
remind me of my ancestors
once castaways along this shore
like lost biblical passages
a Jewish thread that has me
flying over the Arabian sea
She writes of women and girls that “stand square as hay bales, wait to fill sacks, / their muted green overalls against the lime wheat" ('Wartime Wheatfield)', and of others:
They call us parasites
while oakum thorns steal our blood,
paler than sunrise.
We cannot tell you that we dream
of being reborn with a kiss,
(‘Women Picking Oakum in the Workhouse’)
There are blackbirds, a bus shelter - like a scene in a play for three characters – a grocer’s daughter, the Shambles, Malta, urban poems of traffic and memories. Rarely, if ever, does the author lapse into cliché, though “cacophony” …“like a holiday” - jars a little.
This is an intriguing, sensitively observed and keenly crafted collection. Joanna Ezekiel carries her culture, as we all inescapably do, with her wherever she may be, and in this collection she is nearly always “at home”. It is a book to be fond of. Read it. You will read it again.