Joshua Robbins. Praise Nothing. University of Arkansas Press, 2013.
Joshua Robbins’ first book of poetry, Praise Nothing, is a lament on the loss of faith in American life. These poems are haunted by the absence of God and a suburban landscape, which has succumbed to this new nihilistic tendency. There is no forgiveness here in a world where a “boy with spiked hair / and choke-chain collar waits / for a buyer…” or a girlfriend’s body is found in the snow “her small frame collapsed / on itself… “ or a scrap of two-by-four is brought down, “without / hesitating, upon the wrecked / spine of a Dalmatian stray.” This is a world where “heaven / has become nothing / but an age-dulled / marquee gone unlit for years…”
In “Theodicy,” “God raised both hands above His head / as if to say, ‘I’ve had enough,’ and renounced all of it…” He takes a desk job, “His voice far away, / uninterested…” And instead we are left with “darkening suburbs” and a “cold that sweeps east / across the asphalt…”
In “Swing Low” we are asked “What consolation is there / to be found between heaven and earth, / between here and after?” We are told “surely nothing / is coming for to carry us home now.” Each poem draws from the form of a hymn or a prayer, its language sadly echoing the sacred. In a land of underwater mortgages Robbins asks if faith has a place.
There is nothing sentimental in this work, just the unflinching vision of a perceptive eye turned relentlessly toward the real. Robbins’ choice of images is visceral and sharp. “There is a Fountain” opens with:
Gasoline stink of just-mowed dry grass,
black-bagged trash, mulch,
station-wagon-oil driveway stains---out of these
the melody of Midwestern drought:
the Sumac tremolo from a bird I can’t name,
this ash-gray lump trilling its fevered hymn…
The poet recalls a childhood spent at church or around the religious conviction of a grandfather, father and mother. Indeed, the older poet explores the simplicity and promise of that earlier faith. In “When I Say Hymn” we are told by the speaker that:
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.
“As when we first believed.” There is a sense of a world of faith extinguished, a spiritual absence which has now overtaken the poet. In the tradition of other great poets of the spiritual, Herbert to Merton, Robbins adds his name to this list. Pensive, meditative, he asks the great questions which haunt us.
Poetry of this nature is often not successful, ending in shallow platitudes and preaching too strongly. But Robbins—in the manner of Eliot—raises questions about the material world we inhabit.
In “Heaven As Nothing but Distance,” a grandfather arrives in Los Angeles and begins to proselytize with his new Bible. Later we are told of the grandfather’s death and that his ashen remains in a plastic baggie are dropped in a hole in Kansas’s earth. Robbins writes that at the ceremony there was:
but distance in every direction.
Above us, a satellite’s beacon
begged the horizon for home,
the heavens’ scales measured the darkness,
and that was all.
Again and again this is a polluted Eden that the poet lives in with “stinking strands of rotting kelp, / styrofoam…” and the like.
Overall, Praise Nothing is a mature work comprised of poems that have a special, palpable gravitas. I was moved by the poet’s struggle to find belief in a world. But even in this “worldly purgation stretched-out beyond” his stride, the poet is able to find the light of some salvation, some life force that is redeeming. Poetry and its use of metaphor continues to transcend a materialistic world. In “Yardscape Diagram, Good Friday,” Robbins writes:
But even so,
life journeys forward, composes its metaphors.
Sometimes of language transparent as flesh.
Sometimes of language that settles like dust
slant into late-afternoon. Sometimes of light
set off in the pear tree’s white bloom,
piercing the gray matter, rushing into the soul.
In a world that “preps its cruelties,” I commend Robbins on his vision of hope. This is strong work, one that uses sharp and fresh language to achieve compassion.
—Walter R. Holland