Having enjoyed Joshua Mehigan's first collection, The Optimist
, which was published in 2004, I was looking forward to getting my hands on his second book, Accepting the Disaster
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). It didn't disappoint.
Mehigan is a brave poet in several ways. There's great pressure from peers, editors, academia and social media to keep yourself in the spotlight once a first book has been well received, so it takes courage to hold back on bringing out a follow-up. In this case, Mehigan's patience in waiting a whole decade has brought handsome rewards, as Accepting the Disaster
is packed with honed verse.
Secondly, Mehigan is unafraid of dragging traditional form into a present-day context and cadence. When doing so, his craft succeeds in making the afore-mentioned form pass unnoticed. Metre and rhyme come into play, yet they are never intrusive. One such example is "Down in the Valley", a murder story in nine lines that's reminiscent of a Carver narrative due to its deadpan, laconic delivery. It dodges explicit gore so as to ramp up horrific imagination:
"...Nature is just. There's nothing left to fear.
The worst thing that can happen happened here."
Just as in The Optimist
, there are again glances towards Philip Larkin through a contemporary American lens. "The Professor", for instance, reminds this reader of "A Study of Reading Habits" when it states:
"...These days I never read, but no one does,
and, anyhow, I proved how smart I was.
Everything I know is from a book."
I wouldn't want these references to other writers to give the mistaken impression that Mehigan's work is in some way derivative. In fact, the reverse is true. What's more, this second book demonstrates that he has found his idiom. The everyday, as expressed via taut turns of phrase, is woven with delicately controlled, precise leaps of imagination, as in the opening two stanzas of "The Smokestack":
"The town had a smokestack.
It had a church spire.
The church was prettier,
but the smokestack was higher.
It was a lone ruined column,
a single snuffed taper,
a field gun fired at heaven,
a tube making vapor..."
Regarding his subject matter, meanwhile, Mehigan deals with mental illness head-on in sections of Accepting the Disaster
, rather than implicitly invoking it, as was more often the case in The Optimist
. Nevertheless, confession is never the aim. Instead, powerful stories are compressed and distilled into verse.
Accepting the Disaster
is a fine collection in its own right. However, when viewed alongside The Optimist
, it marks the definitive emergence of Joshua Mehigan as a major voice not just in American verse but in English-language poetry as a whole. I thoroughly recommend it.