Zachary Schomburg

The Book of Joshua

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The Book of Joshua Summary

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The Book of Joshua is a 2014 collection of poetry by American author Zachary Schomburg. Presented in the form of a single narrative, the poems describe a character, Joshua, who has struggled with loneliness, hunger, and doubts about his self-worth, and is mourned by the narrator after an untimely death. Joshua takes, and speaks through, many forms throughout the collection, ranging from sailor lost at sea, to a multitude of dead birds, to a robot confined to a limited existence. The speaker at once mourns and is delusional about Joshua’s absence, firmly believing that he can find or reconstruct his dead friend through his poetic search. Thus, the collection is centrally concerned with the limits of language in expressing grief and providing healing and restoration.

The book begins with the poem “1977,” and extends well past the year of the book’s publication into a potential mid-21st century. The first poems describe the relationship between the speaker and Joshua when he was still alive. Their lives are entangled in each other’s, to the extent that, the speaker believes, their hearts operate as one organ. Despite this seeming interdependence, Joshua dies, leaving the speaker alone and distraught. The first poem after the enunciation of Joshua’s death is simply a blank page, conveying the inexpressibility of grief.

The remainder of the book chronicles the speaker’s search for Joshua beyond the grave. The speaker never elucidates why he thinks the attempt is possible; rather, he digs relentlessly through his memories and constructs a dynamic portrait of the man he hopes to find at the end. The poems are highly surreal, touching not only on grief but on related emotions, including longing, anger, and despair. For example, in “1991,” the speaker dreams that he lives in a cave, where one night all of his possessions are rearranged, and his bed occupied by a sleeping baby. The speaker wonders whether the baby is Joshua, and thinks of a list of absurd alternative identities, including baby Jesus, a horse, and a small blue bird. Each of these is a symbol of something related to Joshua: fragility, the hope for redemption, the possibility of communicating across the barrier between life and death. The baby then replies, apologetically, that it is a strawberry patch, and then morphs into an incarnation of the speaker’s “unforgivableness.”

All of the poems proceed like dreams, exposing the chains of associations the speaker iterates across as he looks for Joshua. At times, the speaker believes that he gave birth to Joshua. He compares himself to a horse, fearful and ashamed, that rampages through life killing other beautiful things to shield himself from dealing with his personal loss. Though he is convinced he is unforgivable for whatever unnamed crimes he has committed, his voice reveals that he is deeply reflective and ultimately worthy of redemption. In certain poems, he steps outside himself to provide compassion for others. One example of this is in the poem “2003.” Here, he names himself king of an island, and shortly after, finds a field of skulls. As his first kingly act, he collects the skulls in a basket, then distributes them across a field and lights them from within like Jack o’ lanterns. He imagines a boy in outer space gazing towards the earth and believing that he is looking at a beautiful sea of stars. The poem suggests that compassionate acts do not ignore or distract from one’s grief and suffering, but rather transmute them into tools with which one can reclaim one’s belief in the possibility of beauty and joy.

At times, the speaker believes he has come close to Joshua. In “2000,” he spots a white boat floating in the ocean, and makes a desperate attempt to swim to it. When he surfaces from his dive, he finds only a flat expanse of sea. Then, he floats past the shore, and sees himself still standing there. His search only affords another return to himself, along with an image of a new self, one created out of the effort to find a friend whose mind is inaccessible in death. The rescue effort teaches the speaker that “there is more than one world in the world, and when a world finds another world it finally knows to feel alone.”

Towards the end of the collection, the speaker tires of his search for Joshua. In “2039,” he concedes that there is “nothing else to search and nothing else to do,” and attempts suicide by shooting an arrow into the sky and letting it fall back upon his own heart. When it lands, his heart explodes into sheep, and he is obligated to become their shepherd. He spends years watching over them before they all die in a natural disaster. Finally, he buries each of them, and looks for Joshua in each of their fresh graves. The collection does not resolve Joshua’s search, but rather highlights the absurd, logic-defying nature of grief. Yet, The Book of Joshua suggests that imagination might be a partial remedy for it.