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.
Predestined 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
to those desperate on the other end
of the line. If it were you
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 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.
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. Weeks
he'd kept her in the alleyway
behind the garage, her neck tied
to his Ford with an extension
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 say
nothing. There was only silence,
then a clang of wood on concrete
and, somewhere, the dead leaves stirring.
-from Praise Nothing
An Interview 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
SD & 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.
JR: 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.
Some of 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.
During 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.
If anything, 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 less Pindaric.
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.
My 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?
JR: "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.
SD & 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.
JR: 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.
Here's 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."