Such realism, tinged with wary humor, characterizes
many of Mehigan’s
poems, which describe events
with such clarity, one is convinced that
himself has experienced them, even when one knows,
as in the
case of the "optimistic" cancer patient,
that this cannot be so.
Joshua Mehigan is among the
young poets whose work is presented in the new anthology, Phoenix
Rising: The Next Generation of American Formal Poets (Textos
2004). The editors of the collection asked the poets to provide
an introduction to their works in which they explain why they choose to
write in form. Mehigan’s response provides crucial insight into
reason I began to write this way, trivial as it sounds,
jadedness. Eccentric practice seemed clichéd, I
that was suitably outré!
Pleasure has kept me
hooked – the
interplay of line and syntax, rhymes,
really is (if the poem’s a success) absorbing, and
can take your
breath away. Of course, from the perspective
poet, meter and stanza forms, and patterned rhymes,
cognitive resistance, too. Rules of this nature stir
or slow it, encourage industry, and oftentimes
supply the means
what skill can do.
Mehigan’s casual, conversational response
suggests that the presumed
assignment ("Describe, in a few short paragraphs, your approach to
writing.") has not commanded the poet’s full attention. But
Mehigan’s response should hold our attention, especially if we lineate
it as follows:
One reason I
began to write this way,
Trivial as it
sounds, was jadedness.
practice seemed clichéd, I guess.
that was suitably outré!
kept me hooked – the interplay
Of line and
syntax, rhymes, accent and stress,
Really is (if
the poem’s a success)
can take your breath away.
Of course, from
the perspective of a poet,
Meter and stanza
forms, and patterned rhymes,
cognitive resistance, too.
Rules of this
nature stir up thought, or slow it,
industry, and oftentimes
Supply the means
to show what skill can do.
Mehigan could write prose, but why
bother, when the challenge of a
Petrarchan sonnet offers itself? Mehigan ups the stakes, adding a
motto hidden in the sonnet’s Ciceronian acrostic — O tempora, o mores! — which may
well provide Mehigan’s primary response to the
Like his introduction in the Phoenix Rising
collection, Mehigan’s first full-length poetry collection, The
Optimist, not only repays re-reading, but requires it. One
should not be misled by the book’s title; Mehigan does not view the
world through rose-colored glasses. The title poem is about a
cancer patient whose doctors "liked her cheerful attitude." She
is, quite literally, losing her senses:
calm. Touch burned out first, then vision.
Last would be lungs and heart.
trends, they told her taste was next.
She asked then,
could they pick out her last dress?
Such realism, tinged with wary humor, characterizes many of
poems, which describe events with such clarity, one is convinced that
Mehigan himself has experienced them, even when one knows, as in the
case of the "optimistic" cancer patient, that this cannot be so.
Mehigan’s technique is varied and
irreproachable. The stanza
quoted above is unusual in that each line is end-stopped, a technique
Mehigan utilizes to great effect in "War Dims Hopes for Peace," a poem
constructed entirely of iambic pentameter headlines — ranging from "Bin
Laden Praises God as World Despairs" to "It’s Safety First as Yankees
Open Camp" — culled from newspapers during the week of September 11,
2001. More typically, Mehigan’s sentences are of varying length
and freely cross lines and stanzas. Mehigan writes so well, he
invites one to simply take pleasure in the reading, and he takes pains
not to highlight his poems’ intricacy and formal virtuosity. "The
Abject Bed" for example, which tells the story of an elderly woman’s
decline after the death of her husband, is a villanelle, although one
would not recognize it as such from its presentation on the page.
Writing a real villanelle that does not clobber the reader with its
repetends is something of a coup. Writing one in which the reader
does not even notice that there are repetends is a sure sign of utter
Optimist begins with two show-stopping poems,
"Promenade" and "Two New Fish," that show Mehigan’s tonal range.
"Promenade" is a charming pastoral poem in couplets. It describes
a Labor Day spent in a park in Queens. Everything about the
poem’s description of the day is both precise and
equivocal. The poem begins: "This is the brief departure
from the norm / that celebrates the norm." The park in which the
poem is set is "at the heart / of the impervious borough, yet
apart." The kite, which is the central figure of the first
section of the poem, is "almost unusual," and the wind’s play with the
kite is "predictable / but private." In the poem’s second section
Mehigan describes a wedding party observed by the poem’s
narrator. Wind, moving through the park, connects the poem’s two
sections and brings the poem to its conclusion:
Every face turns to look;
and when the
bride’s tall orange bun’s unpinned
all, in the
breath it takes a yard of hair
to blaze like
lighted aerosol, would swear
there was no
greater miracle in Queens.
Wish is the word
that sounds like what wind means.
Alexander Pope famously complained
that "ten low words oft creep in one
dull line" — that is, of iambic pentameter lines that consist entirely
of monosyllables — but the ten monosyllables in the last line of
"Promenade," combine to form one of my favorites in contemporary poetry.
"Wish is the word that sounds like what
means." What does "wind" mean? And what does it mean to say
that one word sounds like what another word means? A reader can
contemplate these questions and strain to answer them both in the
context of the poem and generally, or he can choose to ignore the
poem’s semantics and simply enjoy its aesthetics: the end-rhyme and
internal near rhyme of hair/swear and aerosol/miracle, which
repeat the "air" sound which is the stuff of wind; the image of a
bride’s hair so red it looks aflame, and then time measured in breath —
a confusion of dimensions expressed through yet another sort of
wind. Mehigan accomplishes so much so pleasingly in this
passage. One is drawn to read more and also to linger on his
The subject matter of "Two New Fish" could
have been cribbed from a
Norman Rockwell sketchbook. A boy brings home two fish in a
knotted plastic bag. But the opening lines of Mehigan’s poem
suggest a psychological perspective not usually associated with
Inside the knotted plastic bag he tossed
and caught in
front of him the whole way home
were two new
The fish inhabit a liminal space between the normal and the
the describable and the indescribable. They "seemed to bear / a
trademark not quite rare" and "were alien and mediocre." As the
boy plays with the fish, Mehigan plays with our concern for them,
sharing with us the boy’s violent fantasies and describing for us the
fish’s response. The boy tosses the bag with the fish into the
air, he grinds the bag across the gravel beneath his foot, and
imitating a hobo, he hangs it on a stick. Meanwhile, the fish
dart back and forth in the bag. I am happy to report that no
animals were harmed in the writing of this poem:
did his undecided best to burst
and also not to
burst the bag. And when
limits neither fish had died,
the boy put down
the bag and went inside.
The poem reports meticulously on both a sequence of events
and on the
boy’s ambivalence and thus renders the events (if not the boy)
comprehensible. It presents facts but not findings. In this
way, as in other ways, Mehigan is an uncompromising poet. His
high demands of himself require that his readers be up to the task of
assigning meaning to his poems.
Many of The
Optimist’s poems describe a situation
but provide only the outer boundaries of what meaning a reader might
assign to the poem. "The Spectacle" describes a housefire and the
"town" that gathers to watch "as colors in the window changed from
clear / to black to orange . . ." "A Bird at the Leather Mill"
tells of a crane that "wore its wings as though they were a shawl /
thrown on an idiot" and the response of the mill workers to its
unexpected presence in their workplace:
Later on, at lunch,
they took turns,
each explaining what he’d do
if it came back.
They bragged, or chaffed, aware
the thing was
lost, but never saying so.
These poems simply capture the way things are — and we are
free to make
what we will of that state of affairs, although here Mehigan might once
again stand with Cicero.
Optimist also includes poems that celebrate
life’s often undramatic highpoints. In "The Umbrella Man,"
Mehigan captures the moment when a sidewalk umbrella vendor spots the
"one . . . / blushing, and misty-faced, and misty haired, / . . .
beautifully bereft, / who has left home this morning unprepared."
In "Past Bedtime," Mehigan recalls, with extraordinary warmth and
sweetness, the familiar dreamy memory of having fallen asleep in one’s
parents’ car after an evening out. When Mehigan exults in the
beautiful light in a Florentine Chapel ("Imperative of the Minor
Florentine Chapel"), the focus is an aesthetic pleasure:
other artist has this power or right?
Just hope: to
apprehend it with a look,
to feel that
something like it could be mine —
know that what
drew me here is not divine.
Many poets, but especially younger
poets, strive to show us how much
they have read. Mehigan does not flaunt his learning or his
influences — all is understated here. One page of notes at the
end of the book merely hints at the eclectic knowledge that contributed
to the writing of the The Optimist,
and the only poem dedicated to a
mentor or master is "Introduction to Poetry," Mehigan’s reverent and
self-deprecating poem for Edgar Bowers. For the most part,
Mehigan is satisfied to help us explore the familiar and mundane,
as in his tour de force
concluding poem, "Merrily," in which he
meditates, with the help of John Donne, on nothing more or less
profound than "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
Optimist’s epigram is typically self-effacing:
His voice broke when he spoke the magic
The rag tossed up did not become a bird.
Unlike the novice magician in his epigram, Mehigan is an
professional. This bird does not merely fly; it soars.
Mehigan, Joshua. The
Optimist. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004. ISBN:
© by D.A. Jeremy