Tagged: Matthew Schmidt

REVIEW: The Book of Joshua by Zachary Schomburg

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

 

REVIEW: That Our Eyes Be Rigged by Kristi Maxwell

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by Matthew Schmidt

Possibilities. It bemuses me to consider the many and varied. It seems there are umpteen doors to open immediately upon entrance into Kristi Maxwell’s fourth poetry collection, That Our Eyes Be Rigged. As readers we’ll all begin in/at the same place; so let us consider the first stanza from “In Which We Ask, Exist”:

Light chews on the patio
or could
a jawbone of light invents a countenance
to settle its valley, to climb scalp-ward
a jawbone of light exposes the whole
pitiable face
juts out over some poor domain
some poor dark domain
I’ve taken a bar into my thought
borrowed thoughts
barred my better thoughts
thought better of
doing that one thing

I’m rather disoriented, unsure where I am or where the poem is (and/or taking place). Usually I would consider this an issue, but don’t feel an overwhelming need to know specifics or see images here. Mainly—because there are multiple parts of the poem to latch onto—it provides enough interest for reader participation. We’re given a super-fantastic line concerning light gnawing concrete. Then, a semi-retraction, though not really. Following, a subtle shift to a half-question, “or could / a jawbone of light” (chew on the patio), half-creation “a jawbone of light invents a countenance.” So, now the jawbone of light is able to create a space for itself in a place (and it may or may not have masticated man-made materials to do so). We’re still contemplating light on a patio at the end of the first stanza, though it seems that the light (which the speaker is contemplating) climbs the speaker’s face. In essence, there is the face of light and the speaker’s face, like dueling Pac-Man creatures, jawing at one another. Of course, this is only my reading, and as I’ve stated there appear to be other avenues of access.

The first stanza is provided as proof to support the following statement: in this collection Maxwell articulates several meanings, imaginings, alternate takes, and restructuring through diction replacement and an admixture of syntactical arrangements. Simply look at the light in the opening stanza: does the light eventually and naturally morph into the speaker’s thought so that it is both physical and mental? Whether I’m the only reader to ‘see’ this in the poem matters less than the fact that there is an evident attempt to carefully place or replace words to mean differently or slightly different. A variation of “thought” appears in four consecutive lines while meaning something different than previously or more precisely re-stated to capture the speaker’s observations/thoughts.

While the above is more of a critical/theoretical approach to Maxwell’s poetry, I feel it’s important to confront the reality of the work to become excited about the work. Sure, I may have read too deeply into the first stanza, yet a simple formula allows an exchange of ideas and definitions through the speaker to the reader. As if watching a person meditate on how to connect with a fellow human through communication, a reader may assess the thought process of the speaker, literally map the synapses firing in their brain.

Throughout the book multiple forms are implemented into the experiment of word/meaning transformation. Maxwell uses long lines, center blocks, mid-line slashes, extra white space, sometimes confusing capitalization and punctuation rules, extended-page poems, and sound.

A prime example from “Post”:

What isn’t ensued by viewing and proven
after. Water muscled by waves
caught in the tide muzzle. This intended restraint

our tending is the refrain for. Swoosh
that drug-busts muteness again.

Speak it aloud. Do you hear the careful assonance and consonance? Sometimes there are direct rhymes, but more often there is a combination of slant rhyme/pun/homonym/repeated word (section) that develops as a poem moves along. “Intended” becomes “tending,” “muscle” bites into “muzzle,” and the “refrain” is “restraint.” That is, it isn’t just sounds/words that move the poems, but that at times these are the major transportive vessels.

A portion of “Plaisir/Minus (+/-)”:

                                                Not a
discarded roll toilet paper scrolled to
empty. Though this was empty. Little
concussions of the heart that resulted in— not
loss, not the golden floss memory shows off
as.

Taken from a center-blocked portion of the poem, this section showcases the syntactical acrobatics employed. “Roll” is shifted from it’s usual position behind “paper” to before “toilet” in order that the rhyme is not too close to “scrolled.” Short of grammatically breaking-down the sentences, let’s content ourselves with recognizing the rhyme of “loss” and “off.” Or even the fact that before a rhyming word loses a letter another rhyming word (“floss”) gains a letter while keeping the -loss. When we arrive at “off” the l has dispersed and the esses have risen to the attention of f’s. A veritable magic act to add/subtract letters and keep the rhyme.

It seems to me the focus of the book is centered around how human eyes see and interpret data. We’re trained to stereotype in order to deal with the onslaught of information that is daily life. However, it is necessary to pay close attention to even the smallest things that we may understand and through understanding join/harmonize/get along with. Maxwell challenges us to view the world from more than one angle, as having more than one possible outcome/meaning. Instead, she champions the idiosyncratic lay-person. We all have our quirks and ways of doing and seeing and being. In “To Exercise This Astonishment,” Maxwell says

I have photographed my birthmark from five angles to submit, and I watch to
see my submission scrutinized with care.

Or later, one of my favorite metamorphoses occurs in one of five poems entitled “Every Time I Want To Write You, I’m Going To Write A Line Instead:,” where words turn to fighting before worth is found (I’d cite it, but I’d want to cite almost the entire poem). Thus, if you’re looking for a book of poems with an edge to its ideology, this should be on your radar.

Buy it from Saturnalia Books: $15

Matthew Schmidt studies English at The Center for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi.