Zachary Schomburg’s The Book of Joshua is an unusual book. The eponymous character haunts the whole collection—and yet we’re never entirely sure who he is. Joshua is, at various points: a creature that emerges from the speaker’s throat, a robot, the speaker (who insists this is a mistake), a collection of dead birds, and a sailor on a sea of blood.
Despite Joshua’s disjointed identity, the book is unusually unified. It begins with a poem titled “1977,” and proceeds as a chronological narrative, a poem for every year. Near the start of the book, after the speaker becomes attached to Joshua (literally: their hearts are hooked together and robo-Joshua pumps the speaker’s blood), Joshua dies. The following poem/year is simply a blank page—we sense that the speaker is devastated beyond words by the loss. Much of the rest of the book narrates the speaker’s search for Joshua who, although dead, the speaker believes he can find.
The narrative doesn’t quite make sense—why look for Joshua if he’s dead?—and yet the force of the speaker’s longing is enough to make the reader accept this surreal plot. Though it may not make logical sense, the search for the dead Joshua makes complete emotional sense as a reflection of the psychology of grief. This blend of the surreal and the sympathetic plays out at the level of the individual poems as well. Take, for example, “1991”:
One night I dreamed that everything in the cave was different—the furniture, the wallpaper. When I walked to my bed, a little baby was sleeping in it. It wasn’t my bed. I thought the baby was you. Are you Joshua? I asked it. Are you the accidental baby of God? Are you a horse? Are you a tiny blue swan? Can I peel open your eyes? I asked it. I am sorry I am a strawberry patch, it said. And then growing from its middle came my own unforgiveableness, an impossibly beautiful strawberry patch to feed me forever.
Though the poem is full of surreal elements, they proceed in a strangely logical fashion: the speaker sees an unfamiliar baby in the cave where he lives, so naturally he asks what’s going on. The baby, naturally, answers: I am a strawberry patch. And sure enough, it’s true. This blend of sense and nonsense is Schomburg’s specialty, and he uses it to great effect throughout the book. “1991” reflects another more important key to the book’s success: even in its most surreal moments, it remains firmly grounded in pathos. We get the odd leap to a strawberry patch, yes—but we’re simultaneously reminded of the speaker’s sense of guilt following Joshua’s death, his touching sense of his “own unforgiveableness” that will “feed [him] forever.”
In other words, the book never resorts to strangeness merely for the sake of strangeness; rather, the surreal happenings are carefully selected images of the speaker’s loss. Indeed, strange as its surface may seem, the book always remains firmly anchored in emotional truth. Consider, for example, the frightening “1994”:
I stopped sleeping and started digging graves to jump into. I saw a horse eating her own horse babies. Horses sometimes get confused and eat their own horse babies, and then they groan for days once their mind finally clears. They groan, so ashamed, so afraid of themselves, and walk around in circles not eating anything. They are newly alone with bloody mouths. I had a new thirst for blood. I started to kill things I wouldn’t dare love.
Since the speaker in a sense gave birth to Joshua, we can’t help but read the horse as a metaphorical reflection of the speaker. So the horse’s shame and fear of itself are also the speaker’s, and we pity him. But immediately we are reminded of the speaker’s unforgiveableness: he has “a new thirst for blood” and starts to “kill things [he] would not dare love.” We sense that the speaker wants us to see him as the unforgiveable monster he believes himself to be—a complex portrait of guilt.
Yet the speaker does not seem beyond forgiveness. Rather, he’s a deeply sympathetic character, and he has the capacity for a strange sort of tenderness. He repeatedly tries to comfort a distraught character, and he sometimes emerges from his grief to act for others. Take, for instance, “2003”:
I decided I would be king of the island. I stumbled upon a field of headless corpses, and then I stumbled upon a field of heads. I collected all the heads in a large basket. This was my first act as king. Then I set them down miles apart from each other across the empty expanse. I put candles inside each skull so they’d look like stars to some other boy, some boy like me, maybe in space.
While we might expect the speaker to reunite the bodies with their heads, he has another plan. We learn he wants to make a sea of stars for “some other boy” to look at from space: he wants to make something beautiful for someone he can scarcely imagine. We sense also the speaker’s loneliness—the only place he can imagine someone “like me” is on a distant planet. Such loneliness is a constant and moving theme in the book. In “2000,” for instance, the speaker says:
I thought I finally found you, Joshua, floating in your white boat in the ocean. I dove into the ocean to save you, but when I surfaced, the white boat was gone. The ocean was a flat red floor. I floated past myself standing on shore. I stared at myself staring at myself. And I stared back at myself staring back at myself. There is more than one world in the world, and when a world finds another world it finally knows to feel alone.
Once again, though the scene is completely surreal, the emotional logic is fully present. We learn something true about what it is to be alone. But perhaps the most touching aspect of the speaker’s loneliness is that it is inescapable: in “2039,” the speaker explains:
I was tired, and I wanted to die. There was nowhere else to search and nothing else to do. I wanted someone to shoot me in the heart with a bow and arrow, but there was no one around. I laid on my back in the hole I had dug, and I shot an arrow far into the sky. When it came back down, it split my heart. It was finally time, I thought. But instead of dying, my heart just exploded into a flock of sheep and then began my burdensome years of being a shepherd. I knew I’d be horrible, these dirty sheep baaaing at my hole.
The speaker’s attempt at suicide only makes matters worse—within the bizarre logic of this universe, suicide leads to sheep which lead, naturally, to burdensome duties as a shepherd. The speaker tries to escape again in “2040”:
For my first duty as shepherd, I pushed all the sheep into the river. What a glorious massacre, I yelled. What a glorious day, the death of a broken heart! …
But in “2041,” we learn that there is no escape:
The sheep were not washed down the river to their deaths. Instead, all the water in the river was absorbed by the sheep. The river became a giant wall of soft bloody woolliness that trapped me forever…
So in “2042,” he tries a different approach:
I spent the year digging holes and burying wet red sheep in them: one billion graves, each filled with a dead sheep born from my split open heart…I looked for you, Joshua, in every grave I dug.
Though the shepherding becomes increasingly absurd, we’re reminded once again of the speaker’s loss as he checks each grave for Joshua. In that way, these sheep make sense, and their stubborn presence is as touching as it is funny.
Sympathetically surreal, funny and tragic, The Book of Joshua is an unusual book, and an unusually good one. Schomburg’s narrative—at once disjointed and unified—is fascinating as a project, and the individual poems stand strong on their own. Filled with wild flights of imagination, the book remains firmly grounded in the deep feeling of its speaker. The Book of Joshua is the surreal at its best—a gripping, challenging, and deeply rewarding experience.
About the Reviewer
J.G. McClure holds an MFA from the University of California – Irvine. His work appears in Best New Poets 2015, Gettysburg Review, and Green Mountains Review, among others. He is the Craft Essay Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor of Cleaver, and is at work on his first collection. See more at jgmcclure.weebly.com.