Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan (review)
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Reviewed by
Joshua Mehigan, Accepting the Disaster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 96pp.

Like the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers, Joshua Mehigan wants to make our flesh creep. And he succeeds. His means are recognizable, even familiar, from certain horror films and the kind of Steven King thriller set in a quiet town: stillness, stasis, and ordinary quotidiana incompletely conceal a sense of lurking menace. But unlike horror films or thrillers, Mehigan’s book doesn’t necessarily reveal exactly what the menace is—or was or will be, for as his title may suggest, he gives equal time to past, present, and future disasters. And of course there’s also a more important difference: Mehigan’s chosen mode, which he deploys with expertise and authority, is poetry.

Mehigan makes full use of lyric poetry’s sometimes neglected resources of compression and suggestion. Unlike many contemporary poets, he always knows when to bite a poem off with a snap, even when we want it to go on a bit longer. With the exception of the remarkable ballad “The Orange Bottle,” the poems in Accepting the Disaster not only don’t tell stories, they refuse to tell stories. Indeed, the first three poems in the collection comprise a little series of variations on this refusal. “Here” ends, “Nothing here ever changes, till it does.” (Compare Greg Williamson’s sonnets in A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck, where each sestet begins “Until” and then encapsulates whatever has gone wrong since the octave.) “The Smokestack” seems to be gearing up to tell of some ominous event, but [End Page 128] ends, after many beautiful and vaguely sinister descriptions of the smoke in the sky, by leaving that event up to the reader’s imagination. “Fire Safety” meticulously, as if it were on tiptoe, depicts a series of relevant devices: smoke alarm, hydrant, sprinklers, “all sitting / supernaturally still, / / waiting for us to cry out. / And we will.” That signature stillness contributes to Mehigan’s authority: he always knows more than he’s saying, and he doesn’t need to raise his voice. Perhaps it’s the reader who does the crying out?

Later in Accepting the Disaster, “The Crossroads” and “Down in the Valley” work by creating disaster-shaped holes rather than by narrating—holes through which we can peer into a past rather than a present catastrophe: a car accident in the one, a murder (presumably) in the other. “This is the place it happened. It was here. / You might not know it was unless you knew,” concludes “The Crossroads.” “Down in the Valley” ends: “The worst thing that can happen happened here.” “Epitaph Carved on a Shinbone” sneakily tucks away its little roster of ominous implications (“That night, his sheepdog didn’t growl or bark. / The door was open. He didn’t raise his hands.”) early enough in the poem so we might miss the point in our hurry to get to a narrated event. No such luck.

Another poem that refuses narrative is “Elegy,” an account of returning home for a classmate’s funeral. The speaker and other classmates gather “in a dark place outside town” to “drink up what little money [the dead man] had saved,” “in accordance with his simple will.” Monica, Bob, Amanda, Mike, and Pam now include “Pistol and Doll, Shadow and Rumour”—the world of English literature stirs in the hellish shadows and conjures up narratives not told here. The final line, “And now we’re mean. We’re terrified. We lie.” didn’t feel final to me—greedy for gossip, I turned the page. But the poem ends there, and that last line takes us not to dialogue or anecdote but back to the first one: “Yes, we were kind, and brave, and honest once.” Mehigan’s poetry is the opposite of a page-turner; instead it sends us back and inward.

It also sends us back to this poet’s predecessors, who are many. Mehigan’s informal-seeming, often monosyllabic diction can recall Edwin Arlington Robinson (I’m thinking especially of “The House on the Hill”) or Frost (listen again to “You might not know it was unless you knew”). But all...