‘Accepting the Disaster’ by Joshua Mehigan

  • PUBLISHED BY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014
  • REVIEW BY: Mike McDonough

Mehigan CoverAccepting the Disaster usually delivers on its titular promise of working class despair set in a generic, colorless American town. These eminently readable poems employ an easy rhyme to evoke an oppressive atmosphere like the gray haze produced by the cement plant in one of the book’s best poems. OK, we’re not getting the semi-lurid colors of an Edgar Lee Masters stereotype, but the plant deserves it, holding the place in its dusty thrall. The only beautiful part of town is the cemetery, where “all are welcome.”

The characters in the book include a college professor “maladroitly” eating a pretzel rod, the bums outside the Men’s Mission, a chemist watching his daughter’s school play, and an abusive priest, but the most memorable by far is Joe Pipe, dressed in a fake cowboy getup, holding a broken radio to his ear, and also brandishing an equally implausible toy pipe. Whether resting on a park bench or hanging out at the bowling alley, he fondly hoped that “a toy along with the clothes and the boots that he wore made him like other men.”  In the end, the poem assures us, with fine irony, “he was not wrong.”

Beyond that, the only vivid color in the book is Janis Joplin’s psychedelic Porsche, which makes a brief appearance in “Try.” Otherwise, there is a heavy dose of resignation, like Lake Woebegone in reverse. “Sad Stories” is headed by a Michael Jackson lyric, “Don’t stop ‘till you get enough,” and starts: “No one is special. We grow old. We die.” The poem is not going to take you through a carnival of pop culture references, and the sad stories leave the reader not with a Shakespearean sense of tragedy, but a nearly pervasive sense of hopelessness.

Even the library does not suggest a way out:  “The door was heavy. That I still remember. / Inside were many things I’ll never know.” One thinks longingly, perhaps for the first time, of well-worn tropes such as high schoolers looking to professional sports as a way out, or stressed out parents living vicariously through their kids, or even the passionate, but impersonal hookups recalled in Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” People, wherever they are, will find something to give them a sense of life and hope, or at least a temporary escape.

Though poems like “Cold Turkey” avoid the trite, nostalgic details of a lost youth, of long dances with good girls in the woods, they rarely rise above their flatness. When a girl goes off to college, we don’t get any sense of her hope, naïve or otherwise, to break free and make something of herself. The poem ends with “The worst thing that can happen happened here.” The understated lyrics go down well but often leave a “who gives a damn” aftertaste as The Rolling Stone Album Guide pointed out in reviewing Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is.

“The Sponge” ends with an effective evocation of Wallace Stevens. The sponge is a nonentity at the bottom of the sea, “our common parent.” Blankly sleeping on a rock shelf, it unconsciously knows that “minds and their milieu are all one thing.” The poem ends, “Still, just by living, all will find / reason enough within themselves to think / the single thought forever in its mind.” Stevensian, yes, but without the color, the playful language, and the vast affirmation.  The book often cries out for incidents and characters that are just a bit funnier, weirder, or more colorful.

The straightforward rhymes are good at enforcing a sense of convention that stubbornly keeps Mehigan’s characters rooted to the spot. The understated diction usually doesn’t call attention to itself, but odd word choices sometimes suggest the need for a comic deconstruction like Twain’s famous critical parody “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”  In the title poem, “Accepting the Disaster,” we find the line: “So we tossed back our daily dosages/ of purine alkaloid, faced our sadnesses, / and, every morning, shelved our essences.”  Only a Martian chemist would casually refer to no, not caffeine in general, but purine alkaloids. At no other point in the poem does the speaker use an obscure scientific word to disguise a commonplace thing, but that’s okay, because soon, we’re going to move on to stronger drugs, and if you’ve shelved your essences, you’re certainly not going to be able to see or taste your coffee. The Martian chemists have certainly turned us into robots here. But lines like these suggest untapped comic potential, and a definite sense that Mehigan approaches a potent, harrowing surrealism but doesn’t quite catch fire.

Okay, put on your Garrison Keillor hats, and I’ll give you the middle stanza of “Citation;”

In this backyard there hangs a gutted deer,
and in that driver’s seat there sits a wife.
They have their MMR and Retrovir.
They have their quarter century more life.

The first and last stanzas are similar, except that there is no other medical word or brand name there, and the poem does not make any point about hunting, marriage, or the pharmaceutical industry, let alone a larger point about the use of children’s vaccines or the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Though it avoids cloying nostalgia or sentimentality, there’s no punch line. The poem rhymes gutted deer with Retrovir, copulate with state, and Paris with embarrass. I guess that’s funny. Things are way too good in this odd world, but the last stanza is simply more outlandish without whipping us back to reality.

But I’ve already overemphasized the point; there are actually plenty of examples of strongly effective wording in the book. “The Orange Bottle,” a long piece about a man suffering a psychotic breakdown, is a surreal horror show, and the rhyme, rhythm and diction perfectly deliver on the promise of “a surreal cartoon just outside his window.” Even better, the cartoon is repeated, getting more harrowing each time as a Greek Chorus of nursery rhyme fragments relentlessly hammers away. Here, Mehigan just as effectively employs overstated rhetoric just as he had earlier stressed a persistent flatness.

“The Orange Bottle” shows that Mehigan can do much with his form, and is a staunch chronicler of the middle class. But he has a ways to go to before he reaches the heights of Studs Terkel or Stephen Crane, as the blurb might seem to suggest. In Accepting the Disaster, he seems to be caught in an awkward space between realism and surrealism that ultimately prevents him from truly taking flight.