Book Review: ACCEPTING THE DISASTER by Joshua Mehigan

 photo aa4d89ff-c79e-4630-b322-533b6f9da43e_zpsba0c522e.jpg Accepting the Disaster
Poems by Joshua Mehigan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Hardcover: $23.00

Reviewed by Jason Barry

Accepting the Disaster is a brilliant new book of verse from one of our finest poets, Joshua Mehigan. This is Mehigan’s second collection, and it’s a formally crafted volume that has the sparkle and shine of a master at work, a poet at the top of his game. Mehigan’s attention to metrical detail is evident at every turn—from dazzling sonnets and rhymed stanzas, to philosophical psalms and minimalist triolets, this book has it all. Let’s begin by considering the opening sonnet, “Here”:

Nothing has changed. They have a welcome sign,
a hill with cows and a white house on top,
a mall and grocery store where people shop,
a diner where some people go to dine.
It is the same no matter where you go,
and downtown you will find no big surprises.
Each fall the dew point falls until it rises.
White snow, green buds, green lawn, red leaves, white snow.

This is all right. This is their hope. And yet,
though what you see is never what you get,
it does feel somehow changed from what it was.
Is it the people? Houses? Fields? The weather?
Is it the streets? Is it these things together?
Nothing here ever changes, till it does.

This poem calls to mind suburban streets or the rural countryside, and it evokes a sense of lackluster routine and drab mediocrity, where things are never more than “all right.” We can see the downtown streets where seasons come and go as they always do, bringing nothing unexpected with them. It’s the quintessential American image of strip malls, billboards, and folks who wish for nothing more than for things to remain the same. Where is this place? Mehigan leaves the question open, but uses ambiguity in the fifth line (“it’s the same no matter where you go”) to suggest that this town could be one of thousands: it’s the one you encounter in New Jersey and Nevada, the place you drive through in Utah that looks identical to the one you passed in Colorado. We have a sense that despite one’s personal efforts, style, and individuality, one’s coming and going has no causal effect on the nature of this place.

Yet we know that we haven’t seen it all, that there’s more to the picture than can we can glean on first impression. When Mehigan writes “though what you see is never what you get,” he suggests that his poetic image is not a definitive representation of the truth. Even an unnamed town can change. We cannot, however, detect its transformations at hand with our faculty of sight, but only with what we feel (see line eleven). There is nothing tangible to perceive or latch onto here—no epistemological evidence of sight or sound to confirm our impressions of change. All we have to go with is our feeling, and we leave the poem with a sense of impending emotional disaster.

In his triolet, “The Crossroads,” Mehigan gives us another glimpse of the ordinary gone wrong, of a scene so common we hardly seem to notice it at all:

This is the place it happened. It was here.
You might not know it was unless you knew.
All day the cars blow past and disappear.
This is the place it happened. It was here.
Look at the sparkling dust, the oily smear.
Look at the highway marker, still askew.
This is the place it happened. It was here.
You might not know it was unless you knew.

We are invited, of course, to observe the aftermath of an automobile accident on the highway, at the crossroads, as it were. And yet, all day the cars “blow past and disappear” as if nothing important happened, as if the spot has no special significance whatsoever; most people go about their lives as usual, and it’s only those who are “in the know” that know the real horror of this place.

What’s terrible is how often we—those of us who continually drive away—fail to register the full weight the crossroads has for others. What I love about this triolet is the stripped down quality, the way it appeals to all of us and also registers individually, the way it renders an everyday situation both personal and powerful. The first line (the one that repeats in the fourth and seventh), “This is the place it happened. It was here” brings us back again and again to the spot, and we depart with an image of car dust, oil, and whatever else our imagination brings to the wreckage. Alas, how soon we’ll forget and move on with things: the sparkling dust will blow away, a new sign will be put in place, and the oil stain will be painted over.

The two poems we explored above exhibit Mehigan’s talent for general description and universal depiction of place. The town in the poem “Here” could be anywhere in America—as could the dust and damaged highway marker. But Mehigan doesn’t limit himself to such a barebones aesthetic. Consider, for example, his gritty sonnet entitled “Heard at the Men’s Mission,” where a cast of unsavory characters populate the foreground:

How many sons-of-bitches no one loves,
with long coats on in June and beards like nests—
guys no one touches without latex gloves,
squirming with lice, themselves a bunch of pests,
their cheeks and noses pocked like grapefruit rind—
fellas with permanent shits and yellowish eyes
who, if they came to in the flowers to find
Raphael there, could not be otherwise—

have had to sit there listening to some twat
behind a plywood podium in the chapel
in a loose doorman suit the color of snot,
stock-still except his lips and Adam’s apple,
telling them how much Jesus loves the poor,
before they got their bread and piece of floor?

What wonderfully grotesque imagery! We can feel the presence of the homeless as if they were all around us—their pockmarked faces, filthy coats, and body odors permeate the scene, though we finish the poem feeling sympathetic and thinking twice about their situation (and also questioning the imbalance of power and the condescending, religious rhetoric of the man behind the podium).

The beautiful turn in this sonnet marks a shift in our perspective: we begin by having the preacher’s (or outsider’s) point of view, yet by line nine we’ve turned the corner and can envision the world as if we, too, were one of the unfortunate sons-of-bitches in the soup kitchen line, subjected to the preacher’s gilded talk and hypocritical banter. This is the kind of description that comes with having spent significant time among the poor, and we gather that the author has a keen understanding of the lives of outcast, downtrodden, and itinerant members of our society.

Each poem in this collection invites patient, multiple readings. Mehigan takes us on a journey from the countryside to the city center, and we roam with him through bum-infested cathedrals and insane asylums, machine shops and polling stations, and even mythological woodlands where girls dance feverishly under shimmering moonlight. The work in this collection is perfectly executed, philosophically rich, and emotionally intense. Accepting the Disaster is sure to be a landmark cherished by lovers of formal poetry, and one of the best books you’ll read for years to come.


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