In Stephen Crane’s poem “In the Desert” an inexplicably naked, bestial creature squats in the desert eating its own heart “‘[b]ecause it is bitter, / [a]nd because it is [his] heart.’” The essence of Zachary Schomburg’s latest book, The Book of Joshua, calls to mind Crane’s poem with its surprising, absurd, captivating logic and dreamscape. In an interview with Peter Stitt in The Paris Review, John Ashbery said, “I would like to please the reader, and I think that surprise has to be an element of this.” In The Book of Joshua, Schomburg, who has written three previous full-length books, delivers on surprise, and thus on pleasure. He has said of his own work, “Mostly I want my poems to generate their own energy through confusion. I want my poems to confuse the reader. Not a confusion in a cognitive or narrative sense, but in an emotional sense.”
Indeed, the narrative and rules here are associative, intuitive, and magical as opposed to logical, linear, and realistic, a bit like a dark Kafka parable. And that may be part of the game. Schomburg was born in 1977, which might seem irrelevant, except that the speaker of The Book of Joshua was born in 1977, as the first poem is titled “1977” and each poem is a year thereafter in the speaker’s life until 2044 when the speaker would be 67 years old. This composes the first two sections—“Earth” and “Mars.” The last section—“Blood”—sheds the years concept and the prose poem form, though it continues to operate with the same remixed diction and images. “Blood” transforms from narrative to loose, spacious verse that makes deliberate use of the page as blank white space to convey distance. The form suffuses the page, like blood, as it remixes earlier language.
So, who is Joshua? The whole book is an apostrophe addressed to a missing character named Joshua who seems at turns to be the speaker, the speaker’s Galatea-like creation, the speaker’s child, or the speaker’s alter ego. People persistently refer to the speaker as Joshua, though the narrator spends the book insisting he’s not. In the end, it seems, Joshua is merely AND importantly the self. As the speaker says in ‘1982,’ “[t]o see you for the first time was to see myself for the first time.”
‘1989’ is titled but there is no poem. The blank comes right after Joshua dies in 1988 when the speaker would be 12. The book, thereafter, becomes a lament filled with confused emotions and violent impulses played out in a constant push from image into image into absurd conclusion. Strung with guilt and feelings of wickedness, the whole thing feels faintly biblical, and faintly mythological. Though everyone in this Dali-meets-Hitchcock scene seems hopelessly disconnected, the book is full of images of attempted connection: telephone cords, umbilical cords, and heart veins in such poems as ‘1984’:
I wanted you to be real, so I made you into a machine that pumped my blood for me. You were a regular metal boy. You had a tape recorder where a regular metal head should be. Every night I hooked up my heart-veins to your mechanical heart. My heart-veins hung between us like telephone wires. I am a boy, I said. I am a boy, you said. Goodnight, Joshua, I said. Goodnight, Joshua, you said.
It’s impressive that this single narrative remains smooth in spite of its many erratic leaps. The book is much like Schomburg’s poem-films and poem-song projects (“Blood” is recorded with Kyle Morton as an audio project) which extend the borders of poetry, just like the prose poem once did. Schomburg said in an interview with Brian Brodeur, “Sometimes I find myself in this place where my brain and my heart are talking to each other, and I have nothing to do with it. I’m dead. And those two parts of me have forgotten about me. This is when I’m at my happiest, when I’m dead in this exact way.” That statement feels like the mission statement of the strange land of The Book of Joshua, which ultimately spins its own myths in a book that is built to feel symbolic, but isn’t really a straightforward metaphor for anything because, within the context of this world, these statements are literal. It’s not allegory but finely figured dream.
The cast of characters includes a character named Woman who seems to be a detached mother figure physically cut off from the speaker, though observing via some magical telephone, and recording the text known as the “Book of Joshua” by recording everything the speaker says and does. Other characters include God, Joshua, and the speaker’s father. The speaker’s father is never named and only appears as “my father” in a series of ten poems in “Mars.” The father, in an inversion typical of this book, is birthed by the pregnant speaker who admits, “I was not ready to be a son.” According to the speaker, all birth is essentially abandonment, and his pregnancy and fathering of his own father mirror the speaker’s creation of and loss of Joshua. The inversion causes an awkward and intense estrangement as the father, who eventually abandons the speaker on Mars by stealing their spaceship, writes, “Dear Joshua, you are a finite distance from me, and I am a finite distance from you, and that distance is eternally and hopelessly in flux.” There’s a palpable distance between all of these characters—between Joshua and the speaker, God and the speaker, the Woman and the speaker—like stars staring at each other in the dark: “God bless me, I said, but God was unable to bless anyone from so far away.” And although the book is explicitly an apostrophe to Joshua, the you is so inviting and pointed it’s impossible not to feel, as the reader, it’s you:
we are the same exact invisible
silent broken tree the same wall
of birds the same horse licking
and shining the same hole in
the air we have the same face.
If this is neither metaphor nor allegory at work here, then what are Schomburg’s devices? Repetitions. He used indices in his previous collections to organize, emphasize, and create opportunity for repeated words, images and themes, but he seems to have stopped with this book, which makes sense given that it’s not really a collection so much as a single narrative. And he maintains the basic philosophy of carrying threads and images; he just doesn’t need the gimmicky scaffold anymore. His imagery begins in a dream within this larger dream, as the speaker in ‘1978’ confesses, “I had my first nightmare about dangling by an umbilical cord from a white sky above a white boat floating on blood. In it, you were asleep or worse in the boat, your name carved on the side. Joshua, it read.” And he circles back to the beginning image many times: white boat floating on blood. As in: “[i]t made a white boat-shaped cloud that floated on the red sky,” or: “[t]he river became a giant wall of soft bloody wooliness,” or perhaps most hauntingly:
the horse is dead
underneath the bed
it grows the blood
your white boat floats on.
Repetition makes this book, even though in a playful meta-moment, the speaker actually cautions, “When you do something over and over again, it is as if it isn’t being done at all.” It’s as if the book were rejecting its own methods as unsound. The book also rejects the sort of traditional simile-and-metaphor model of building poems. At one point, in ‘1990’ there’s almost an outright attack on metaphor: “At the mouth of the cave was an actual mouth, and at the mouth of the river was an actual mouth. The mouths had big salt rocks for teeth that would crumble together as they spoke.” The mouth of the cave has an actual mouth because whatever this menacing magical dreamscape is, it’s not metaphor. Instead, this book is built of negation and misdirection: I am not Joshua, I am not a biblical allusion, I am and am not the poet as speaker, I am not a symbol.
Like Schomburg’s genre-challenging poem-film and poem-song projects, the tone here is morbid, yet ironically luminous and welcoming, an opposition that creates tension and electricity, that propels a reader through the narrative with a pleasant discomfort. Everything feels repeated, repeatable, reincarnated, rebirthed. It feels slippery. It all hearkens back; in fact, The Book of Joshua hones, smooths, and perfects the same modes and tropes Schomburg’s been playing with since the beginning when no one was around. Back in Fjords, Schomburg titled one of his poems, “I Am the Dead Person Inside Me” and that trope seems to continue into The Book of Joshua. Early in the story, the lonely speaker asks, “Is anyone there?” and follows up with “I couldn’t think of anything else to say, but maybe that is always the best thing, to just ask if anyone is there.” Well, I’m here in the land of Joshua, attached by its heart veins, and you should be too.
The Book of Joshua, by Zachary Schomburg. Black Ocean. 128 pages. $19.95, hardcover.
Bill Neumire’s reviews have appeared in the Cortland Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Pedestal Magazine, and Umbrella. Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Sugar House Review, The Toucan, and Cloudbank. He writes and teaches in Syracuse, New York, with his wife and dog. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.