Joshua Robbins–Seeking the Divine in Strip Malls

Do you remember that movie The Princess Diaries?

Okay, perhaps such a question isn’t a good first statement for a blog that I hope is pretty thoughtful reflections on the inspiring work I’m reading lately…

But as I read Joshua Robbin’s Praise Nothing this evening, I couldn’t help but think of Mia Thermopolis, the movie’s protagonist, and her quirky poet neighbor Mr. Robitussin.

In the movie, he’s a comically brooding poet who writes poetry about his garbage can and the goings-on in his San Francisco neighborhood.

While I believe Joshua Robbins to be a much better poet than that character seems to be in the film, I imagined as I read that Robbins perhaps has the same writing process.

 

I think one of my favorite aspects of Robbins’ chapbook so far (I’m about halfway finished) is his thematic focus on the mundane and run-down aspects of everyday living. He writes of suburbs and turnpikes, the sound of semi-truck jake brakes and the rumblings of washing machines in his local laundromat.

He writes eerily of the mundane and frankly depressing aspects of lower-middle class American life. Bowling alleys shut down, vacant strip malls with shady bars. And in all of it, he finds this spiritual depth and conflict.

The book is split into three main sections: “Against Forgiveness,” “Praise Nothing,” and “Collateral.”

“Against Forgiveness” seems to deal mostly with issues of the Church’s and God’s interaction with a dilapidated world of forgotten, failing America. He grapples with faith in very realistic and tangible way in poems like “Theodicy” where he writes “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” (Robbins 7)

Even in this one section of poem, I think the way he approaches explaining his frustration or confusion about faith is very tangible and human. In his poetry, the divine and the base connect so seamlessly, yet also in juxtaposition with one another.

The passion of his poetry, the angst, is evident most in his constant referral to fire. He powerfully makes reference to burning a list of his father’s faults as his funeral in “Less than Ash,”  he describes guilt and passion in “Controlled Burn” by comparing an affair to a fire in a field in Kansas, and he describes a pile of hymnals on fire in “When I Say Hymn.” This motif both connects his poems and infuses this depth of passion into what he writes.

Juxtaposition is something Robbins’ poetry does wonderfully as well.

In “Washing in the Sangam,” his descriptions flow from a foreign and strange scene on the shores of the Ganges to a simple scene of his son eating breakfast in his high chair. The connection flows beautifully and unexpectedly with just a few common details to both scenes, and the end result is a very haunting view into the beautiful complexity of the simplest of everyday scenes.

 

I also deeply appreciate the simplicity of his structure–every poem is comprised of short lines, and most stanzas are two to three lines each. I think this keeps his poems fast-paced and passion-infused without losing a lot of the contemplative descriptions that he provides.

 

Basically, if you’re at all intrigued by work that attempts to grapple with the divine in unusual ways,

give Joshua Robbins’ Praise Nothing a try.

It’s a haunting, simple-yet-so-very-complex little read with much to offer in the way of writing inspiration.

His website is joshuajrobbins.com if you’re looking to learn more.

 

Keep reading and watering those creative minds, friends.

Abigail Joy

 

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