Prose Feature: “To Go On Living There With Everything: A Review of Joshua Robbins’s Praise Nothing (University of Arkansas Press, 2013)” by Michele Poulos

July 25, 2014

In his debut collection Praise Nothing, Joshua Robbins orients us both to the need for seeking greater spiritual awareness and the disappointments of such seeking, as in the lines “Nothing / is new here under the sun / beating down in mid-April / where no one is looking for the infinite.” Throughout an array of locations, from the silo-dotted plains of Kansas to the hippie-infested waters of India’s Sangam or even a ladies’ room at a local Wash ‘n’ Shop, Robbins reminds us of the importance of the way the internal landscape of the psyche interacts with the actual physical place in which the seeker may find himself. We travel the via negativa through suburbs and strip malls, stopping briefly outside a church, “beneath / the sky’s after-services light, [where] everything / had the consciousness of the angelic.” These are God-haunted and God-questing poems that do not result in easy or comfortable affirmations and realizations.

Though there are humorous passages, as when Robbins imagines God doing things like working behind a desk in khaki-colored scrubs, the collection mostly concerns itself with the divinity’s ineffability while enacting the relentless contemplation needed to achieve transcendence. We are reminded of the British Romantics and their struggles to overcome each inevitable fall from a pure transcendent state. But unlike the Romantics, Robbins is reluctant to recover, or incapable of recovering, his own version of paradise so easily. Take for example the second poem in the collection, “Passing Paradise,” where, for an old Romanian sweeping a strip-mall theater’s sidewalk, “heaven / has become nothing / but an age-dulled marquee gone unlit for years.” Or, in “Swing Low,” the speaker finds it “easy to envy the juncos for their devotion to sky / and for how stupid they are,” when “surely nothing / is coming for to carry us home.” Much of the collection reads like a suspended hymn, full of the beauty of the mundane and the terror of the sublime.

The book also echoes with the influence and challenge presented by the poetry and poetics of Larry Levis, particularly his use of external landscape as a way to reveal the inner one. In fact, the book’s final poem responds to Levis directly. In an essay titled, “Oaxaca and the Politics of Looking” from The Gazer Within, Levis writes, “There are places where the eye can starve,” and in “Some Notes on the Gazer Within,” Levis asserts that he can’t bear witness to landscapes that contain tract housing, shopping centers, and suburbs “without feeling merely exhausted, drained, and spiritually beaten.” This threat of inner defeat haunts Praise Nothing as well. Robbins’s poems situate themselves within the shadowy bars, suburbs, and fallow fields of the Midwest, places that have been soiled by human use and abuse, places so ubiquitous and inescapable that his characters are not merely overwhelmed by the presence of No-Thing, they often appear to be on the verge of total paralysis or collapse, emotional and spiritual. At worst, some seem completely indifferent. At best, others long for a faith once held.

Take, for instance, the collection’s third poem “Theodicy,” where Robbins sketches an updated and even more awfully familiar portrait of a withdrawn deity:

                                                  If God is with us,
then maybe He lives around here, too,

some duplex on a loop or a single
apartment with a satellite dish. Maybe
right now God is, like us,

commuting across town toward home,
or headed from work to the store, or maybe
He’s just driving. His window cracked

to feel the cold as the sun descends,
while the rest of us pull into our driveways,
jangle our keys at the front door, and try

to keep on believing, even as we
lock it behind us and turn out the light.

A paved paradise figures prominently in these poems, often accompanied by a sense of exile and loss. Junkies getting high behind a vacant K-Mart “know there’s no / more to take from heaven, that all / that’s left is patched asphalt, chain-link.” A psychotic woman reopens her arm at a hospital ward with a piece of glass, while the poem’s speaker:

                                                                 would like
to believe what was released then by broken

glass is describable now in the language
of the living, but years later, she is still

on her knees wailing her ruptured prayer
as the city below bleeds out into day.

And a suburbanite remembers:

          spent at church, how the derelicts

gathered below on benches
                    and cold pavement looked up

and how, first, we circled
                    the upright, sang each verse

and refrain. Only then
                    would we open our doors.

The poems not only raise questions about the nature of God, faith, and belief; they suggest ever-multiplying doubts as well.

Fans of the most extreme sort of exploded syntax and twisted diction in contemporary poetry could perhaps at first consider the language of these poems to be rather too direct or understated, but there is nothing simple about Robbins’s natural “ear.” Working within the inheritance of the lyric mode, he infuses short lines and stanzas with unexpected phrasings, internal rhyme, playful alliteration, and the occasional breathless run-on. Here is the beginning of “Blue Spark”:

Back deck, Adirondack: evening hums.
                    Fly-by-nights kamikaze iridescence
into the zapper’s electric blue.

                    Due west and past the river,
thunderclouds horizon summer’s
                    thirsty ridgeline, and I, moth

to fluorescence, stalk the moon.
                    Once, in a bar’s back booth,
I was flesh jolted AC.

                    In the dance floor’s strobe,
I radiated Plato, the Whitmanesque,
          flashed the poetry of drag

and chrome, glittered vinyl, tiger print.
                    Outside, the city’s turbines
churned the river’s darkness white.

One makes note of all of the complex sound patterns emerging in the first line of this passage, where the first two words, “Back” and “deck,” immediately establish a slant rhyme and then are followed by the word “Adirondack,” which provides an additional slant rhyme as well as repeats the short a and e sounds found in the first two words. A colon follows the word “Adirondack,” then we encounter the words “evening hums.” The colon acts as a sort of fulcrum, balancing the energized and harder d and k sounds with the softer n and m sounds of “evening hums.” The sounds compliment the action and imagery; hard sounds emphasize the imposing quality of a mountain while softer sounds suggest the sleepy and tranquil evening humming. This precisely rendered and finely tuned language becomes a characteristic aspect of the collection—Robbins’s commitment to craft and accuracy is large and resolute.

Readers who enjoy the skeptical and bemused nature of the spiritual and philosophical meditations of the kind one finds in, say, Charles Wright, will have much to admire here, although these poems may exhibit more chaotic disturbances. They arise from a consciousness that may have once adhered to a powerful and sustaining faith and lost it, or who now seeks to find or regain such a faith. Robbins posits questions of concern for us all. Some readers may find themselves enlivened by such inquiries, while others may find themselves staring straight into the strip-mall abyss. By turns religious, political, and meditative, the poems in Praise Nothing comprise an exceptional portrait of yearning for absolution and certainty, although what is on offer is a rain of “ash that fills the air / and blinds us we / go down unguided” and the only sort of arrival we will be able to achieve is “to go on living there” with “all we have forgotten,” and “to go on living / there with everything.”

—Michele Poulos

Michele PoulosMichele Poulos’s A Disturbance in the Air won the 2012 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. Her poems and fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2012, The Southern Review, Smartish Pace, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic, Copper Nickel, MiPOesias, Sycamore Review, Waccamaw, and other journals. Her essays and book reviews appear in Blackbird and Stone Canoe.

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