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Joshua Robbins


Less Than Ash
I’m beginning now to hear
the voice that sings just beyond memory:

heaven-flung and not quite
an afterthought, something settling

on what shifts in the heart.
It’s mid-summer now and the sky

peels back above the turnpike
as another August late-afternoon

boils over. I remember the hard pew,
the voices singing Soon we’ll reach

the shining river, soon our pilgrimage
will cease.  But here there is no ghost,

no elegy, and no wavering
Amen to be found in a hymn’s last line

like the one I sang later, off key
and to no one in particular,

as I pulled the soiled mattress out
of the bedroom where my father died,

tipped it over the balcony railing
and onto the grass below.

Even then, what was it I wanted?
Not the river, its murmuring choir.

But something, yes. Something pure
like this asphalt steam’s resurrection

of all I’ve forgotten or have tried
to forget: how after the service

behind the sanctuary, I wrote out
and diagramed my sins. How I’d lied.

Said I’d miss him. That I could hear him
singing with all of those called home.

Then, striking a match, I held
the paper’s flame and told myself

I wanted nothing more, nothing less
than ash, and no water to put it out.

               -originally appeared in Still

When I Say Hymn   

I mean breaker-crashed gunwales, yes,
    John Newton’s near-shipwreck conversion,
and, of course, “Amazing Grace,”

    but as Janis Joplin screaked it,
her voice full-throated and grainy
    bending the phrasing. And it’s two

young men, homeless on a suburban
    church pew, one high or getting there,
the other striking matches,

    each small flame tossed
toward a pile of gasoline-soaked
    hymnals, and how the day after

the fire we sang over the sanctuary’s
    ashy smolder. It’s the photo
tucked in my mother’s Bible,

    the one she snapped circa 1967:
Pearl’s mouth wailing, the stage
    set ablaze by the fiery coal

of her heart that Summer of Love.
    Sundays, having passed out
the night before, Mom would sing

    a wretch like me tuneless
but extra loud, raise her Bible
    when the preacher’s tongue

cast our sins away.
    How we burned then, bright
as when we first believed.

            -originally appeared in Apalachee Review


Because spring’s grace by now
    is worth nothing more than the vacant
wind as it lays down

    roadside cheat grass and smooth brome
into the scrawled shade
    of a hand-lettered billboard’s He is Risen,

I can raise now this sweating
    and half-empty longneck
to August’s full bloom and bring it

    back to the lips half-full,
blessed by whatever it is
    that jinks the last monarchs

fluttering like quarter notes over the driveway,
    its flat, sun-glittered tongue,
its hymn of sawdusted motor oil

    ascending into nothing
but the wash line’s pinned-up t-shirts
    and damp shorts flapping pointless

as prayer flags in the sweltering breeze.
    And although fall’s back soon
with its hard tally of leaf change

    and leaf drop, its apostate
yawn of jaundiced light
    hung in the barren trees

like torn sackcloth, I’m content
    for now to love, to watch
summer’s penitents stumble

    down the path of sweat and sacrifice:
contrite women with bad knees
    and sensible shoes, young mothers

like exhausted pilgrims
    pushing their chubby toddlers
who point to the empty sky,

    even the bare-chested young men
who jog the tortured asphalt
    with furrowed brows seared

by August’s mark and headed
    God-knows-where, who know
we all take nothing with us,

    not even the relief of these
our long purgatorial shadows.

                   -originally appeared in Center