Young Poets Calling: Part 2
The Optimist by Joshua Mehigan. Ohio University Press, 2004.
A.E. Stallings. Triquarterly, 2006.
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To get a
sense of the bleak and illusionless intelligence that animates Joshua
Mehigan’s poetry, the best place to start is the title poem of his first
collection, The Optimist. Optimism, of the quiet, bourgeois,
cheerfully resigned variety, is something contemporary poetry hardly needs
more of. Reassurance, minor epiphanies, the solace of everyday
things—these are some of our most popular poets’ most popular
But Mehigan’s optimist, we soon discover, is a woman dying of cancer: “Touch burned out first, then vision.” And where another poet would play this death for bathos, or for the bittersweet resignation that is a slightly disguised form of bathos, Mehigan makes it yield a genuinely astringent recognition. This is not simply that we are all destined to die—a truism we evade so regularly that no poem can bring it home to us—but rather that death exposes the hollowness of all our desires. The dying woman’s last request, to pick out the dress she will be buried in, is presented not as a brave assertion of personality in the face of oblivion, but as a reflexive operation of will, as helpless as the jerks and twitches of the hanged man:
wasn’t making light. It seemed to her
cancer just rehearsed life’s attitude
one’s desires must taper to a point
which has position, but no magnitude.
The poet who can wrest this insight from such a subject is in no
danger of “making light,” in any sense of the phrase. If there is a
light in Mehigan’s poetry, it is the sober lucidity that shows things
simply as they are. Indeed, the more cheerful a poem’s title in The
Optimist, the more certain it is to betray its promise of happiness.
“Progress” turns out to be a poem about nothingness, both cosmic and
existential: “in truth nothing was in him, around him, / substantial,
pervasive, and all of that— / even atomic.” “Merrily” seems to
invoke “merrily we roll along,” but its epigraph from Donne describes
a very different kind of journey: “from the womb to the grave we are
never thoroughly awake.” In this parable of life as a river-voyage,
Mehigan insists that we are not pilots of our destinies, merely their
cargo: “As if to steer, / I drop a hand in. Oh well. Anyhow, / the
scenery is mesmerizing here.”
If Mehigan’s understanding of life is
consistently dark, however, it is not insistently so. He does not
complain, argue, or preach about the state of affairs his poems reveal: in
fleeing from optimism, he does not end up a pessimist. Rather, the terse
eloquence of his formal poetry seems to constrain him to direct, accurate
observation. (Or, rather, his instinct for directness and accuracy leads
him to form, whose artifice is, paradoxically, the best way to avoid
rhetoric.) The quietness of Mehigan’s poetry is made possible by a
genuine formal mastery, rare for any poet today, and doubly impressive in
a first collection.
For an example of how rhythm can express a poem’s meaning even
more effectively than words, look at “A Questionable Mother,” about a
woman who has murdered her child. This ripped-from-the-tabloids subject
might seem too garish for poetry, or at least to demand an equivalent
garishness in its treatment, such as Frank Bidart brings to his tales of
serial killers and madmen. Mehigan, on the other hand, enforces an
extraordinary atmosphere of hopelessness simply through a series of
pentameter lines, each dragging to a halt on a weak syllable:
thought of murder weren’t that uncommon.
was uncovered by the hour.
the suspect cried they must believe her.
female officer behind a window
thick green glass typed slowly without stopping.
It is typical of Mehigan to show the crime not in the overwhelming instant
of its commission, but in the bleary, routine aftermath. Life, too, goes
on “slowly without stopping”: that is the truth Mehigan always returns
to, and which makes his sadness convincingly unmelodramatic.
This complex of formal, tonal, and philosophical gifts makes
Mehigan akin to Robert Frost, and at least one poem in The Optimist
seems a deliberate response to a famous Frost poem. Just as Frost, in
“Out, Out—,” sternly elides the moment of the boy’s
death—”Little, less, nothing!—and that ended it”—so Mehigan, in
“The Spectacle,” relegates a couple’s death by fire to a line break:
slept a moment more but didn’t wake
the gas was on them like a tongue,
then they were asleep again.
The chilling kindness of the euphemism is also
Frostian, as is the concluding turn away from the victim to the ambiguous
survivors: “the firemen said, ‘Stand back, please. . . please stand
back . . .” Yet despite the similarities “The Spectacle” does not
read like a pastiche of Frost. Rather, it is Mehigan’s expression, in
his own idiom, of a similar experience with the world.
Nor is that experience conveyed only in
the extremes discussed here—murder, disease, accidental death. It is
equally present in Mehigan’s wrenching poems about family life, whether
he writes from the point of view of the child, as in “After a
Nightmare,” or the father, as in “Runaway Daughter,” or the husband,
as in “The Tyrant.” There is more insight into domestic grief in these
and other poems in The Optimist than in a dozen louder, more
overtly confessional books. And that sense of insight born from experience
is what makes Mehigan’s work so moving and impressive. Few American
poets, old or young, seem to know so much.
poem in A.E. Stallings’ new collection, Hapax, suggests that
Elizabeth Bishop plays the same tutelary role in her witty, intelligent
poems that Frost does in Mehigan’s. “Aftershocks” employs a famous
rhyme from “One Art,”—master, vaster, disaster—and invokes
“cartography,” the favorite subject of the author of “The Map” and
Geography III. At the very least, the situation of the lovers in
“Aftershocks”—who find to their surprise that “We are not in the
same place after all,” who ask “have we always stood on shaky
ground?”—suggests that Stallings, like Bishop, is a poet who
approaches the world warily. She has a coolly ironic sense of the way
things fall, not dramatically apart, but unsettlingly askew—the way, as
she puts it in “The Dollhouse,” “lives accrue, / With interest, the
smallest things we do.”
The most appealing of Stallings’ gifts
is her sense of play, though she is not a ludic poet, if that word
suggests the attention-grabbing somersaults of a Paul Muldoon. Rather, her
delight in the artificiality of language —the way it can be coaxed into
rhymes and patterns—is adult, decorous, even slightly aloof. The pun in
those lines from “The Dollhouse,” drawing out the double meaning of
“interest,” is highly characteristic; it bespeaks a poet who pays as
strict attention to her words as to her thoughts, and who finds both kinds
of attention a source of pleasure. That is why verbal conceits abound in Hapax.
At a funeral, “silence sounds its deafening report”; a poem titled
“Thyme” is also, inevitably about time. “Minutes” compares the
passing moments, with their easily refused demands on our attention, to
beggars, and then works out the metaphor with Metaphysical thoroughness:
selling packets of paper tissues,
sell thyme they found growing wild on hillsides,
will offer shreds of accordion music,
Sad and nostalgic.
have only cards with implausible stories,
spelled in rickety, limping letters,
me—deaf, etc.—one of seven
Brothers and sisters.”
Stallings’s ideal reader would be able to recognize the Sapphic
stanza she employs here, since the Greek classics are her favorite subject
and resource. (The book’s title, Hapax, is the Greek word for
“once.”) She comes by this interest honestly—she is an American
expatriate in Athens— but drawing on Greek myth for emotional resonance
is a perilous tactic, and she does not always avoid its pitfalls.
Temperamentally, in fact, she seems drawn to a certain classicist’s
donnishness, as in her long series of limericks about gods and heroes (“Arachne,
Athena beside her, / Let her ego grow wider and wider”), which would not
be out of place in a senior common room.
But Stallings deserves praise for avoiding the
misuse of the classics that is much more usual today, in poets from Ted
Hughes to Louise Glück: treating them as a ready-made storehouse of
tremulous, Gothic intensity. Stallings’s scrupulous intelligence never
serves her better than in her powerfully understated approach to myth, as
in “Asphodel,” a poem about the flowers of hell: “I noticed a
strange fragrance. It was sweet, / Like honey—but with hints of rotting
meat.” Such precise imagination allows her to do justice to the real
foreignness of ancient Greece, and provides some of the most memorable
images in Hapax: a dead dog “touching noses / Once, twice, three
times, with unleashed Cerberus”; the “needling milk teeth” of
Actaeon’s hounds, who will grow up to devour him; Persephone who
“weeps kerosene / And wipes it on her sleeve.” Stallings herself
describes this technique—the poet guiding herself through the unknown by
holding fast to the concrete—in “Explaining an Affinity for Bats”:
“Who find their way by calling into darkness / To hear their voice
bounce off the shape of things.”
But the most intriguing direction that Hapax
opens up for the future of Stallings’ poetry lies in more personal
subjects. Her poems about love, sex, and heartbreak have that rare
combination of emotion and reason, sweetness and sourness, that used to be
called worldly-wise. If few poets sound this way anymore, it is because
few recognize, as Stallings does, that feeling is more poetically
effective when mastered by form and irony. When Stallings writes about
shattering emotion, as in “Fragment,” she does not use “I” even
once, preferring to give herself wholly over to the metaphor of a dropped
It breaks because it falls
the arms of the earth—that grave attraction.
breaks because it meets the floor’s surface,
is solid and does not give. It breaks because
is dropped, and falls hard, because it hits
and nobody catches it.
In the matter-of-factness of that last line, we seem to hear
Stallings’s true note—as we do in the miniature drama of disconnection
in “Failure,” and the compressed history of a love affair in “Flying
Colors: Flags of Convenience.” It is a note that already makes Stallings
one of the best younger poets, and that promises to grow even stronger in
the work that lies ahead.