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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Joshua Mehigan's First Book of Poetry



Such realism, tinged with wary humor, characterizes
many of Mehigan’s 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.

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 Books, 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 his work:

          One reason I began to write this way, trivial as it sounds,
          was jadedness.  Eccentric practice seemed clichéd, I guess. 
          Meter?  Now that was suitably outré!  Pleasure has kept me
          hooked – the interplay of line and syntax, rhymes, accent
          and stress, really is (if the poem’s a success) absorbing, and
          can take your breath away.  Of course, from the perspective
          of a poet, meter and stanza forms, and patterned rhymes,
          offer some cognitive resistance, too.  Rules of this nature stir
          up thought, or slow it, encourage industry, and oftentimes
          supply the means to show 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. 
          Eccentric practice seemed clichéd, I guess. 
          Meter?  Now that was suitably outré!

          Pleasure has kept me hooked – the interplay
          Of line and syntax, rhymes, accent and stress,
          Really is (if the poem’s a success)
          Absorbing, and can take your breath away.
          Of course, from the perspective of a poet,
          Meter and stanza forms, and patterned rhymes,
          Offer some cognitive resistance, too. 
          Rules of this nature stir up thought, or slow it,
          Encourage 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 assignment. 
      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:

          She waited, calm. Touch burned out first, then vision.
          Emotion slipped. Last would be lungs and heart.
          But, noting 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 Mehigan’s 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 mastery. 
      The 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
          by ordinary, inconvenient wind,
          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 wind 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 gorgeous "Promenade."
     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 Rockwell:

          Inside the knotted plastic bag he tossed
          and caught in front of him the whole way home
          were two new fish.

The fish inhabit a liminal space between the normal and the surreal, 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:

          He did his undecided best to burst
          and also not to burst the bag. And when
          within these 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.
      The 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:

          What 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." 
      The Optimist’s epigram is typically self-effacing:

          His voice broke when he spoke the magic word.
          The rag tossed up did not become a bird.

Unlike the novice magician in his epigram, Mehigan is an accomplished professional.  This bird does not merely fly; it soars.

Mehigan, Joshua. The Optimist. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004. ISBN: 082141612X  $12.95

© by D.A. Jeremy Telman

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