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, with no water to put it out
and wanting nothing more, nothing less
than ash, I held the paper, prayed
for a flame, struck the match.
for the warehouses
of the snow, cold sweeps east
across the asphalt, the darkening suburbs.
I think of Job and wonder
if God ever really returned
to business. After He'd consented
to boils and crushed livestock,
servants' and children's throats slit,
after ash, maybe one still afternoon
God raised both
hands above His head
as if to say, "I've had enough,"
and renounced all of it,
took a job behind a desk
wearing khaki-colored scrubs,
filing papers to code and answering
the phones, His voice far away,
disinterested, yet familiar
those desperate on the other end
of the line. If it were
fidgeting in the waiting room
you'd not even notice Him.
Just north past the ridgeline's barren
pin oaks, I watch in the rearview
as the office park's cold silhouette
dissolves into the outskirts
of suburban sprawl. 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
to feel the cold as the sun descends,
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.
Once I watched my neighbor, returned
from the Gulf, bring a weathered length
of scrap two-by-four down, without
hesitating, upon the wrecked
spine of a Dalmatian stray.
he'd kept her in the alleyway
behind the garage, her neck tied
to his Ford with
cord. Nights, after he'd stumble home
drunk, I'd listen to him shout and
lay into her until he was
done. In that moment
though, it was
as if this world had never been
more pure, that the rasped October
breeze through the
birch trees on our street
meant nothing, saw nothing, could
nothing. There was only silence,
then a clang of wood on concrete
and, somewhere, the
dead leaves stirring.
-from Praise Nothing
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Scansion
Joshua Robbins is the author of Praise
Nothing, a collection of poems published by the University of Arkansas Press (2013).
His recognitions include the James Wright Poetry Award, the New South Prize, selection for the Best
New Poets anthology, multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, and the Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in poetry from the Sewanee
His work regularly appears in journals such as Mid-American Review, Third Coast, Verse Daily, Copper Nickel, Southern
Poetry Review, and elsewhere.
He earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and a PhD from the University of Tennessee. He is Visiting Assistant
Professor of English at the University of the Incarnate Word where he teaches creative writing and literature. He lives
in San Antonio.
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Scansion
The Melody of Midwestern Drought: Joshua Robbins' Praise
Nothing by Joseph Zenoni, first
published at Anobium
in the Sangam,” Joshua Robbins writes,
you’ve found this hunger
answered even as I
turn away in our ordinary house
from the look of wonder
in your face, the expression
Christ must have had
seeing Lazarus raised.
His debut collection, Praise Nothing (University of Arkansas
Press, 2013) is populated by this type of somber ode to lost faith, suburban guilt, and Midwestern decay.
Robbins’ writing is like the empty
air that opens over soy fields. It’s clean, no-nonsense. “Pure” maybe, in a lapsed Christian’s cosmogony.
Damn effective too; it’d be hard to imagine a line like “a five dollar bill pressed/into my sweaty palm, then
a fumbling/of button fly, and his tongue/a close rhyme of desire and cold sky” being handled with more aplomb. So
too with “dug a hole into Kansas silt loam/and dropped into it the plastic baggie/with his ashen remains. Nothing then/but
distance in every direction.” Limpid is the word maybe, or perspicuous. Which is not to imply that Robbins is prosaic;
no, his clarity is necessary to accentuate the material’s solemnity. Would ruminations on lapsed spirituality and
middle class decay work as well if they were written by Eli Cash.
In the moments where his poems lean lighter on autobiography, he gets purely lyrical; stand-out “Blue
Spark” opens marvelously:
Adirondack: evening hums.
Fly-by-nights kamikaze iridescence
into the zapper’s electric blue,
“Blue Spark” retains that crystalline concision, but it’s
also vibrant, colorful, and fun – a rare quality in these lines. The same poem ends:
Lightning spikes. I inhale the night;
lawn mist. Insect char. Beyond
the clouds, the electric moon.
Filagreed throughout Praise Nothing is
an almost desperate preoccupation with heaven – whether it exists, and if it does, where it is and how one might earn
entrance. “Thoughts of heaven, by now they’d be long/unutterable,” “for whom heaven/has become nothing,”
“Heaven As Nothing But Distance” – and that’s just from the first four poems (the third, “heaven”-less,
imagines God as living on Earth, so). Nearly every poem in the collection reflects on the idea of paradise: an idea that
expands to fill space like a lost love. Robbins sees heaven in every cabinet he opens, in every snagging crack of asphalt,
in every sacred stalk of wheat. Obsession might be too harsh a word. Heaven is his flaw of character: it torments him,
will never leave. Heaven pulses like a phantom limb hanging disconsolately from his frame; he can’t stop its nag.
And when he finds it, he finds it shamefully: in his son’s blind
trust, eyes averted; in a homosexual tryst, after Ash Wednesday mass, “In the dance floor’s strobe/[radiating]
Plato, the Whitmanesque,” in the silence of early morning, before “Being’s sour arpeggio” begins.
Lost faith is the most Midwestern faith. Robbins is usually searching in
vain. These poems are colored by absence. They speak of faith, God, and heaven only in relief, because Robbins’ fails
to find them in the world:
I could listen
to the trash can’s
tipped over plea, the skewbald
hallelu of a dying lawn,
and praise nothing,
like glass shards in my throat
and not swallow.
Instead of heaven, he finds the alluring burden of his dead father, the ignominy of his Suburban hideaway,
and the weight of all the sins already sinned. Heaven to Robbins becomes no more than an endless field sown years ago with
the seeds of guilt and deferred piety.
Birds are prophets. As is cheat grass,
“agapathus and bacopa.” And the clouds, and the “Kansas plains’/red wheat.”
Easy to envy the juncos for their devotion
and for how stupid they are, lured back down
to continue their frivolous songs
over their rush hour’s
stop and go.
variety of romantic naturalism is a most Midwestern feeling. The land is a mystic in ecstatic revelation, both enviable
Scarcely a poem
goes by without mention to either the land’s two faces: the day has either the “Gasoline stink of just mowed
dry grass/black-bagged trash, mulch/station-wagon-oil driveway stains” or is an “illumination exploding/into
the world like trumpeted heads of fuchsia”.
The three great Midwestern altars get their worship (or ire); the City, past but not forgotten, primal and
mean, still thrashing; the Suburbs, a necessary wasteland, ugly but safe, easy but safe, enervating but safe;
and the Country, the terrified past, beautiful and sad, in a slow spiral into dissolution. They war in his mind for
dominance – for meaning – but none ever claims victory. They are all churches of their own special
virtues: violent vibrancy, safe modernity, or natural purity.
If Robbins finds
anything here, it is not spiritual ecstasy, self-affirmation, or pastoral peace. If he finds anything, it’s that
truth is taught by the spiritual everywhere, a lesson he has known since he was a teenager, working a doomed job next to
a doomed girlfriend:
of statistics – addictions
and foreclosures, all the anonymous
of the elect –
blessed us, pressed
their cindered palms against
our foreheads, and we
understood all of it,
how everything submits
in the end
to the elemental will
with Joshua Robbins by Steve Davenport and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Your poems
sit lightly on the page. What specifically attracts you to the two-or three-lined stanza? Is the choice influenced by content?
Joshua Robbins: I suppose some discussion
of William Carlos Williams' triadic line and variable foot, the space he carved out between vers and libre,
could be useful here, but, put simply, I want the poem's presentation to reflect the content's tone and usually a two- or
three-lined stanza is my attempt to create an additional sense of fragility or intimacy or consolation and so forth. That
said, my primary concern is one of measure. Of course it's line that's preeminent when it comes to measure, but I think
the stanza can function similarly in that I've got a patterning or a hard count in control. A stanza's scaffolding is evident
in the finite form on the surface of the page and in the argument of the poem, but it's the infinite, the architecture and
structure underneath, that is my primary concern. If I remember correctly, Charles Wright describes the stanza as a "tonal
block" and I find that quite useful.
& AMK: Same question for the short line. I know you often work in longer lines and read poets who utilize it,
but we don't see much of that in this book.
I do read poets who deploy a longer line. Whitman, of course, and Christopher Smart. Marianne Moore. Allen Ginsberg. And
especially Garrett Hongo, Larry Levis, T.R. Hummer, C.K. Williams, and Jorie Graham. There are also many fine younger poets
using a longer line: Jeffrey Schultz (whose work you've archived here), Anna Journey, and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, to namedrop
a few. But I think it's important to point out that the long line ought be more and do more than create a hip and entertaining
discursiveness and sweep. All the poets I've mentioned possess a distinct rhetorical complexity and music created by a syllabic
or accentual count, a grammatical or syntactical foot, a measure that's idiosyncratically their own. Their lines are, to
my ear, closer to verse than to whatever we mean by "free verse" and "long line" nowadays. In other
words, there's no slack in their line.
my recent poems have a longer line, longer for me anyway, and usually it's an accentual line somewhere between sevens and
elevens. The risk is that they run a bit ragged and loose by the time they're enjambed. But, you're right; I usually begin
drafting in long lines. It's a way of listening for the poem's natural measure. By the time I'm done making pass after pass
over the poem, counting syllables and culling excess diction and anything that sounds extrinsic or ornamental (I've tried
to display this process via the draft of "Doxology."), I usually end up with a three- or four- or five-beat line.
Sometimes I try to resist those instincts, but I always come home. Well, almost always.
SD & AMK: "Theodicy" is a beautifully reflective poem that begins in cold and
snow and ends with porch lights being turned off all over the suburbs. It manages to be quiet even as it runs through an
inventory of God-directed violence. "Less Than Ash" deals with father death and "Collateral" the brutal
beating of a dog, yet again death and violence seem beside the point. Is the violence a vehicle to get at other things?
JR: I've not thought of violence
as a vehicle per se, nor is violence a specific subject matter I set out to explore, and so I think you're right:
death and violence are beside the point.
the years I wrote the poems which eventually became Praise Nothing, I was in the middle of a religious crisis, one
that evolved from my inability to locate a theological argument that satisfyingly addressed the Problem of Evil. And so
I turned to poetry as an alternative. When I set about writing the poems you mentioned-along with poems like "Against
Forgiveness," "Passing Paradise," and "Doxology," among others, even the longer poem "A Patterning
of Fire, a Gathering of Ash"-I was trying to create a personal theodicy via the lyric. (The verdict is still out on
whether or not I was successful. Of course I'm inclined to doubt it.)
When the poems appeared in journals and, later, in Praise Nothing, I discovered that, as transcriptions
of my private yearning for answers and redemption, the poems were transformed into a kind of testimony. They became a public
argument for a more intense examination of how we might live more deeply within our own individual capacities for belief.
I'm certainly not the first poet to explore this.
I often go back to Berryman's "Eleven Addresses to the Lord" because of the ways it beautifully expresses the
lyric complication of searching for a language of faith in the face of loss and despair which are, paradoxically, the core
of the lyric poem: agon.
I think whatever appearance of violence there is in my poetry comes from an exploration of the human condition. There's also
a lot of asphalt in the poems. And plenty of poems with strip malls and suburban cul-de-sacs and hymns and birds, etc. Make
of them what you will.
SD & AMK:
There's a subtle little turn in "Theodicy" in the eighth stanza that moves from watching this personification
of God to the natural/man-made landscape. This often occurs in your work: the link between God and the outside world/ this
link between the subject of your gaze and that subject position in his/her/its environment. What's going on here?
JR: I wish I had a more complex answer for you. The shifts
you mention are turns prescribed by the Pindaric ode's strophic structure. My standard move is strophe / antistrophe / epode,
although there are some Horatian strains in the poems, too. At one point during the drafting process of "Theodicy"
and against my better judgment, I revised the poem from strophic to stichic and the poem, consequently, behaved very differently.
Fortunately, Dan Albergotti, who'd seen an earlier draft in quatrains, kindly called me on this change. I went back to four-line
stanzas and during revision I ended up with tercets and was also able to wrestle the content back into something more or
SD & AMK: Talk to
us a bit about meter. "Less than Ash" isn't metrical verse, but you've clearly paid much attention to the rhythm
of these lines. I'm particularly curious about that "late-afternoon" in the fourth stanza. The "late"
adds a little extra stress in what is otherwise a more fluid line. If you say "another August afternoon" aloud
versus "another August late-afternoon," there's quite a difference in the rhythm that, no doubt, you intend.
JR: When read aloud, that full line
with your edit would be "as another August afternoon," which, to my ear, scans as iambic save for an anapest substitution
in the first foot. That's certainly pleasant and, on the whole, there's an iambic ghost strolling through its line, but my
counting method is rather idiosyncratic for this poem and thus I have the flexibility to throw "late" into the
mix while maintaining my count, which is three beats per line. Anyone else assiduously scanning the poem could surely contest
my scansion and numbers and no doubt they'd be right.
count, though, comes from how I hear the poem when I read it aloud. (I've tried to demonstrate this with the scanned excerpt.)
I think of that count's function as being similar to reading the music and singing the lyrics to "Shall We Gather at
the River?" which is the hymn quoted in the poem. Although the hymn has a 4/4 count, if you look it up online and listen
to it being sung, I think you can hear the effect I'm after with this odd method of counting accents.
SD & AMK: Why indent in "Collateral"? Was
the decision content-driven? An instinctive move?
"Collateral" has a syllabic line and the indentations are my crack at circumventing any sonic monotony that might
enter the poem due to the ear's ability to anticipate the line's forthcoming enjambment. It's sort of akin to worrying about
the way the ear knows what's coming down the pike of a closed couplet in heroic verse. The content-driven reason is simple:
the indentations serve to both call attention to and disrupt the intimacy inherent in the couplet as a stanzaic form. In
the case of this poem, I want content to follow form all the way through the final line. "Measure and matter, matter
and measure," as Charles Wright says.
& AMK: You end poems powerfully. The clicking off of lights, the striking of a match, the sound of "dead
leaves stirring"--how much does your muse charge for those gifts and when in the writing of the poems are they delivered?
We'd like the phone number.
If only it was all as easy as that Tommy Tutone song: "Jenny, I got your number. / Jenny don't change your mind. /
Jenny don't change your number," that we could just call the number on the wall and get a little muse action.
a reminder from Sappho of what makes writing poems so sweetbitter and the labor worthwhile: "Like the sweet-apple that's
gleaming red on the topmost bough, / right at the very end, that the apple-pickers forgot, / or rather didn't forget, but
were just unable to reach."
Click here to read and interview with Joshua Robbins at First Book Interviews
Click here to read an interview between Joshua Robbins and Joanne Merriam
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Scansion
Click here to view a scansion of Robbins' rhythm in his poems