MIDWAY THROUGH the last section of Portland poet Zachary Schomburg's The Book of Joshua, at the end of a long string of short lines reminiscent of Robert Lax, comes this: "From the bottom/of this grave/everything is/a bird."
It's an echo from earlier in the book, when the sky is so full of birds that the unnamed narrator crushes them with every step he takes. He lives in a cave of bird corpses. At this point, the narrator is ostensibly three years old, and already fixated on blood and death. It's a fucked-up way to start a book, but a more fucked-up way to start a life.
In the first two sections of Joshua, titled "Earth" and "Mars," the narrator recounts the events of his life (from 1977 to 2044) as prose poems. The last section, "Blood," is a longer poem that flirts with various styles from concrete to minimalist; it's also been recorded as a musical collaboration with Kyle Morton of Typhoon.
Throughout the book, the narrator strives to find, create, protect, change, or destroy the titular Joshua. Confusingly, many of the supporting characters (often, but not always, other versions of the narrator) seem convinced that the narrator is Joshua. "I'm not Joshua" becomes something of a refrain.
The feat of The Book of Joshua is to create a world by repetition: images become motifs, then symbols, and finally, reality. The narrator starts forming his world through metaphors as soon as he is born. In his own words, "When you do something over and over again, it is as if it isn't being done at all." (This sounds like Aristotle: Ethics are born of habit; habituation makes of actions a pattern—a background on which to act.)
"It's ok it's ok" becomes a sadly hopeful refrain, repeated quickly and uselessly whenever help is needed. It's as empty and misplaced as the qualities of a horse the narrator carves as a boy: "I had never seen a horse before, Joshua. It stood upright on two legs and had hands." The next line is disconcerting but perfect in its logic: "I think I might be a kind of horse."
On an uninhabited island, the narrator declares himself king, and arranges skulls with candles in them, "so they'd look like stars to some other boy, some boy like me, maybe in space." Schomburg's trademark absurd simplicity is here: soon, the narrator reads a book called Basic Planetary Exploration and builds a spaceship out of bird bones. He says, "In order to be born from something you have to leave it. Eventually, everything I know will be born from me." Schomburg captures the eventuality of a life and of all life: It's birth and rebirth, all leaving one moment for the next.