by Matthew Schmidt
Birds. Horses. A boat. Blood. The color white. A telephone.
These and other recurring motifs and objects make up The Book of Joshua by Zachary Schomburg. It is a strange journey indeed; beginning in the year 1977 and moving through 2044, the first two sections titled Earth and Mars are prose poems with only the year as title. Schomburg was born in 1977 and the third section of lineated poetry, Blood, begins on page 77. This most likely is not a coincidence as numbers are important to the book, however, only 67 years elapse in book time (though the final section does not contain years or individual poem titles).
I bring these points up to note the meditative quality of the poetry. Moving as if through the speaker’s life and to a possible future, Schomburg questions himself, his place in the world, and what is expected of him through the birth of himself/Joshua and his maturation. 1981 has the speaker slowly growing:
While the speaker (who is possibly an avatar of Schomburg) and Joshua appear to be the same person, it is debatable. We can assess the similarities to Schomburg’s life (or time of existence), the fact that a character known as the Woman is writing The Book of Joshua in The Book of Joshua, or that The Book of Joshua in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is attributed to Joshua but most likely has several contributing authors. Arguments could be made for all three and perhaps other interpretations. Suffice it to say, the book is an amalgamation of various sources and ideas.
According to The Poetry Foundation, Schomburg himself wants his poetry to “generate…energy through confusion…in an emotional sense.” This is true of the book; strange things happen that the reader must grapple with: Joshua comes into being from the speaker’s throat (spoken into existence), the speaker makes himself/Joshua into a machine (much like our bodies mechanically regulate our temperature, blood flow, etc.) so that he can talk to him(self), travels to Mars, swims an ocean of blood, births his own father, and plays the game Family (like how we interact with our families). Yes, this sounds confusing, but ultimately it isn’t narratively confusing. It allows us to emotionally consider our lives, what we’re doing with them, why we act as we act, what it means to say something, and that we keep looking for something even though we don’t know what it is.
I think it’s important to look at an entire poem like this to understand the movement of the work: how things grow and shrink, questions are asked aloud and of the self, feelings are considered and communication and place are questioned for their validity. Dreams and nightmares clash in the speaker’s mind as reality and emotional identity are pursued seemingly through funhouse mirrors. Think about it: we go to carnivals and pay money to look at ourselves in variously-shaped mirrors. Certainly it is fun, but it also is a way we can be something else for a moment, or think we look a different way than we look. Are the mirrors in our homes (flat, regular mirrors) really telling us the truth when we look in them? Isn’t it strange how we can look smashing in one photograph and awful in the next? Schomburg takes us to this existential realm and allows us the opportunity to look at himself/Joshua/ourself. We can ask hard, emotional questions and decide how seriously we wish to consider answers.
I’ll admit the first time I read the book and arrived at the third section I was nonplussed. An immensely engaging story has been going on for 70-plus pages and now I’m confronted with line breaks and lots of white space. Much of these lines repeat what has happened in the first two sections and I was lost. This is part of the point though. In life, just as we begin to think we understand something, find a rhythm, get comfortable, something changes. We think back over what has changed and try to pinpoint what we thought and felt about the events preceding the change and we come up with fragments of thought, a distorted reality. Often we mull these fragments over and over in our minds before arriving at a somewhat abstract conclusion. This is what the last section of the book enacts as form:
Many of these ideas are all ready in our mind because we just read them. They return here in a different form and elicit different meaning with line breaks, white space, and brevity that make us take more time to pause and consider them in relation to their previous meanings. Time changes things or things change over time. We alter our understandings and make new connections. Joshua is the speaker is Zachary is me and you. Is robotic. Is equine. Is creating from the mouth and bird bones. This is definitely a trip, moving through the solar system and our blood stream simultaneously, issuing from mouths and entering ears, creating a new planet that is this same planet, learning what to do with our bodies and minds and importantly asking our emotional selves how we feel and that we do. I think you should get in the spaceship. Think you should go read this book.
Buy it from Black Ocean: $19.95
Matthew Schmidt studies English at The Center for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi.