Zachary Schombur

The Book of Joshua

Black Ocean

reviewed by Jake Mariani

Schomburg writes, “Birth is a regrettable trauma. Life is a slow farewell”, and in this short sentence encapsulates the journey taken in his book. The Book of Joshua is episodic and in its own way so anti-dramatic that it’s very much like watching an absurdist or existential drama take place as you flip from page to page and pass from year to year. With these sparse prosaic paragraphs Schomburg manages to traverse between planets and covers a fictional time span of sixty-seven years.

Throughout the book there is a pervading tone of uncertainty, in the form of both identity and reality. The first poem establishes the narrator’s isolation, In the year of 1977 he claims:

In the beginning no one was around…

From there the second poem acknowledges the narrator’s unconsciousness with a nightmare:

I had my first nightmare about dangling by an umbilical cord from a white sky above a white boat floating on blood. In it, you were asleep or worse in the boat, your name carved on the side. Joshua…

The primary form of identity is established and from here the narrator begins his metaphysical journey. Joshua is first recognized in the narrator’s unconscious state during the year 1978 and is present for the next ten years before he passes away in 1988. With the death of Joshua, the reader is left with the distinct feeling that this marks the death of the narrator’s childhood. Leading up to this, the narrator seems to be exploring himself through Joshua. In the year 1984 Joshua’s physical form is established:

I wanted you to be real, so I made you into a machine that pumped blood for me. You were a regular metal boy. You had a tape recorder where a regular head should be…

The ambiguousness of Schomburg’s phrasing is what makes the story interesting. Joshua is hidden in a thick red cloud and whether he is real or imaginary is never fully understood, neither to the reader nor the narrator.

According to the narrator, Joshua dies when he falls into his own grave. The grave was dug because they were pretending to bury their child while playing a game called Family. In a sense, the metaphysical or existential drama entered into the conscious world when Joshua fell into the hole and drowned in his own blood. This is a defining chapter in the book for several reasons. It marks the permanent absence of Joshua, who remains dead to the narrator throughout the rest of the book. Secondly, it defines the narrator’s journey of self-discovery and his endless search for a recreation of “Joshua” or what could be interpreted as his own innocence. Lastly, it begins his physical journey that takes him from “Earth” to “Mars” to “Blood,” the three sections of this book.

After the death of Joshua, the narrator goes through a period of mourning, going as far as wanting to die. He also returns to the uncertainty of his sub-conscious, where he meets with Joshua in his dreams and is often terrorized with his own guilt. In one nightmare, he comes across a baby he thinks is Joshua, only to find out through its response that:

I am sorry I am a strawberry patch, it said. And then grown from its middle came my own unforgivableness, an impossibly beautiful strawberry patch to feed me forever.

Yet despite the narrator’s preoccupation with recreating Joshua, he’s not entirely absent of companions. These manifest in many different forms, the most enduring being a woman who follows him around. She is constantly on the telephone with God to ease her grief and is also recording his actions and words down in a book that she has titled “The Book of Joshua”. The narrator remarks several times, I am not Joshua, again establishing the theme of confused identity.

The woman figure could be an easy parable for a mother, but where she is left more inconspicuous, the narrator’s father is not. He’s established after the narrator has left earth, and in a depressed and lonely state tries to recreate Joshua by impregnating himself. He gives birth to his own father in the year of 2028 and remarks:

“I was not ready to be a son.”

In 2029, while feeding his baby-father he’s delivered a message that appears in the form of a rolled-up letter emerging from the father’s mouth. The letter reads:

Dear Joshua, you are a finite distance from me, and I am a finite distance from you, and that distance is eternally and hopelessly in flux. 

Family begins to take shape in the narrator’s world, one instance that might be interpreted as his mother’s depression is when he is reading “The Book of Joshua”, to his father. He reads over the lines written down, “This is only further proof of your badnessem>.”

The father soon after deserts them and takes the spaceship from Mars. The Mother is crying louder than usual and a white boat-shaped cloud hangs low. Between the two chapters of Earth and Mars, Schomburg has managed to create what could be interpreted as an absurdist journey a child takes to not only become a man, but also to carve out for himself an identity despite the tragic loss of his own childhood. The section “Mars” ends where the journey for one’s self initially began, with the narrator playing Family, this time the Woman placing him into a grave. In the year 2044 which is the narrator’s last recording of the date he states:

I woke up dangling from an umbilical cord that looked like a telephone cord. And there you were, Joshua, on the blood in a white boat, rocking.

Despite the surrealist nature of the book, what grounds it is the death of one’s childhood. Whoever one may be, it is not any easy thing to come to terms with. Much less any other tragedy which may strike out at one’s family. What makes this book tangible, and what I think exemplifies Schomburg’s talent is the way in which he captures this loneliness and these pangs of fear that we all go through. He’s managed to make sense of a world and journey masked in complete absurdity.

The section “Blood” in and of itself deserves almost a separate review. It marks a change in not only style but also tone. The short prose turns into different forms of free-verse and it’s something that Schomburg performs live with music. The narrative is not as obvious, if it is even a continuation of it at all, and one isn’t sure whether it is intended to serve as a funeral song, Joshua’s Inferno, or some sort of other purgatory. What I will say is that whether or not one agrees with it as a closing form to the narrative, doesn't much matter. Schomburg’s inscrutability prevails and it’s an eerie tribute to the life and death of Joshua.