A poem is like a rocket: Either it achieves liftoff or it falls to the ground. And since contemporary poets have largely discarded the tools that have traditionally helped poems aloft—meter and rhyme—it’s not surprising that they rarely take flight.
Joshua Mehigan’s Accepting the Disaster is the rare new book of poetry that is entirely alive, entirely aloft. No allowances have to be made for these darkly lucid, sad, and humane poems; they are the thing itself. Robert Frost spoke of “the figure a poem makes,” and Mehigan’s poems do what the best poems of the past do: They make utterly individual “figures” out of sentence rhythm, metaphor, tone of voice, and point of view. Yet Mehigan’s individuality does not take the form of eccentricity or egotism. Instead, he achieves a kind of limpid, epigrammatic speech that, while retaining the inflections of his voice, creates the illusion—common to the best poetry—of a poem speaking itself. “Believe It,” a poem of eight lines, speaks about death with the kind of authority that cannot be assumed, only created by verbal precision:
Hard to believe that, after all of it,
in bed for good now, knowing you haven’t done
one thing of any lasting benefit
or grasped how to be happy, or had fun,
you must surrender everything and pass
into a new condition that is not
night, or a country, or sleep, or peace,
but nothing, ever, anymore, for you.
This poem, which rivals Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” as a totally unillusioned, modern response to death, displays several of Mehigan’s strengths. Because his language stays close to the colloquial, to speech order and rhythm, it is totally unpretentious; yet if you listen closely, that language is deeply alive with subtleties of meaning and effect. For one thing, this is a poem about death that never mentions the word death. The dead person is only “in bed for good,” a childishly literal euphemism that captures our permanent childishness in the face of mortality. The second stanza labors to define the “new condition” in which the dead exist, but only manages to pile up negations—death is a mode of being that is nothing, and so the poem enacts the impossibility of speaking even as it speaks.
Temperamentally, Mehigan is drawn to this kind of grim subject matter, as the very title Accepting the Disaster suggests. His first book, The Optimist, used its title extremely ironically. The title poem of this new book is also full of ironies, but of a deeper, more mature kind. It describes a country slowly going down to its doom, but as Mehigan adds detail after detail—“Crowds moved. The cities sang with grievances … /We saw on the lampposts the blurred visages/of late and later disappearances/smiling from homemade flyers … ”—we realize that the state of emergency he describes is nothing but our ordinary, daily life, only slightly heightened. “Whole species vanished,/and, each month, one or two languages”: This is the kind of disaster we have learned to accept so well that we don’t even notice it anymore. But Mehigan, who puts the reader in mind of T.S. Eliot’s Webster who “saw the skull beneath the skin,” does notice, and brings it to our attention not by ringing alarm bells, but through quiet, indelible, inexorable description.
This poem is also a technical tour de force: As the reader gradually realizes, almost every one of its hundred-plus lines ends with a plural word ending in “-es.” And only a reader alert to the use of form, of rhythm, meter, and rhyme, will appreciate the mastery Mehigan shows in these poems. “The Orange Bottle,” a 16-page narrative in ballad meter, charts the course of a psychotic breakdown; the opening poem, “Here,” is a perfect sonnet; “Sad Stories,” a wonderfully strange poem about Michael Jackson, seems to call out to Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” in its pentameter meditations:
In silk pajamas, in a pretty morning
glimpsed through Venetian blinds, joy even now
might sometimes visit as it used to. Bright
hillsides of early June, mockingbird songs,
the highest button of your shirt undone …
“The Smokestack,” my favorite poem in the book and a poem destined for the anthologies if ever there was one, describes a small town factory’s smokestack in a series of virtuosic but homely analogies, which end up evoking a whole way of life:
It could look like Cuba
as seen from outer space.
It could look like a pedestal stone.
It could look like Jesus’ face.
The busy residents
tended to ignore it,
though no one alive remembered
a time before it.
Form, though, is nothing on its own, which is one reason why the term “formalist” is useless as a description of a contemporary poet. What matters in Accepting the Disaster is the way form disciplines speech, breaking sentence rhythms across line rhythms, giving Mehigan’s language gravity and permanence. The combination of this style with Mehigan’s characteristic subjects—working-class labor, accidents, mortality, transience—gives him the austerity of an elegist and the warmth of a fellow-mourner. Accepting the Disaster is a book that anyone who reads poetry should read; I suspect we will be reading it for a very long time to come.
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