The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 12 :: Anton Yakovlev on Joshua Mehigan

Reading Joshua Mehigan‘s collections The Optimist (2004) and Accepting the Disaster (2014), I was struck by the understated, low-key way in which the author delivered the most impactful passages in his poems, causing them to go straight to the reader’s feelings almost bypassing the conscious mind. At the same time, the straightforward tone of the poems is reminiscent of Pushkin who was noted for his simplicity of expression.
With most of Mehigan’s poems written in meter, with great attention paid to the music of the words, I found it easy to let many poems wash over me almost too quickly at first, only to discover, on reaching the end of the poem, that something about it had moved me strongly. I would then have to read the poem again, once or several times, to figure out what had caused that reaction.
The poet Peter Sacks once pointed out the hidden blade—or hook—placed at the very center of John Keats’ “To Autumn”: “Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, / Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook / Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers.” A sharp blade has suddenly, though unobtrusively, appeared in the heart of a melancholy but otherwise mellow, wistfully quiet ode, written at the time Keats was already well-aware of his ailing health.
Unobtrusive hooks abound in Mehigan’s poetry, and indeed some of the most impactful and devastating moments often occur almost incidentally, as a passing thought, somewhere in the middle of a poem. Consider “The Spectacle” in the collection The Optimist:
The fire transformed the bedspread into fire.
It climbed the curtain like a nervous cat,
and at the top it rained onto the floor,
where vapor reeked from cracks between the boards.
They slept a moment more but didn’t wake
until the gas was on them like a tongue,
and then they were asleep again. The fire
waited behind the front door like a person
of great importance just about to step
onstage. The town stood back a bit and watched
as colors in the windows changed from clear
to black to orange; as the smaller panes
plunked out onto the porch; and then because
the firemen said, “Stand back, please . . . please stand back . . .”
The poem takes its time giving vivid details of the house fire, and only eventually mentions the owners of the house who “didn’t wake / until the gas was on them like a tongue, / and then they were asleep again.” It then moves right along, personifying the fire, describing the town’s residents, the windows and the firemen; the reader needs to do a double-take to become conscious of the central tragedy at the center of it all.
Personification is one of the poet’s chosen tools, all the more unexpectedly powerful for how casually such personifications are usually made. Suddenly an emotion or a state of mind becomes another character, just strange enough to be haunting. In “If Ye Find My Beloved . . .” (The Optimist) a husband leaves his sleeping wife to go on nightly bouts of debauchery about town with his friends; in his absence, the character of love appears, inter alia, unseen and barely acknowledged by either the sleeping wife or the absent husband:
She didn’t hear the music or the men,
the fan belt clucking like a worried hen
out of the driveway, up the road, to where
the bars erased a day’s work for a ten
and change. Nor did she quite not hear. Out there,
between a half-dreamt porch and headlight glare,
love lowered its muzzled head, growled in defeat,
and dragged its chain across the bottom stair.
The poem goes on, describes the husband’s drunken escapades and his eventual return home, only to conclude: “So be it. He was back, / little to tell, and less to talk about.” The insight here—again delivered like a stealth blade to the heart—is in the realization that once love is defeated, nothing else warrants much discussion.
In “Post Partum” (The Optimist), depression becomes personified, a monster that “stands there at the door and screams instead.” Eventually, the depression lessens and, having acquired a strong reality in the sufferer’s mind, doesn’t just fade away but is imagined to go off and lead a life of its own:
Then one day you’ll find it’s gone away.
Some part of you must turn up missing too.
But these times pass. Some day, but not that day,
you’ll wonder if it ever thinks of you;
and, fumbling for just what it was you felt,
you too will mock the ground where once you knelt.
The surprise of “you’ll wonder if it ever thinks of you” is, to this reader, the pivot on which the poem turns and to which it owes its resonance, all the more haunting for its apparent lightheartedness.
Sometimes the pivot is so subtle it actually becomes invisible. Consider “Down in the Valley,” one of the most celebrated poems in the second collection, Accepting the Disaster:
It was her first time coming home from college.
She headed downtown for a drink or two.
Her girlfriend went home early. That was Christmas.
Now, under sapling pine trees in the clearing,
snowdrops are coming back to their old places.
They had been gone a lifetime. Now they stand,
poised like a choir on the verge of singing:
Nature is just. There’s nothing left to fear.
The worst thing that can happen happened here.
One can easily make some guesses at what exactly happened between lines 3 and 4, but it is precisely the unsaid that makes the poem so universal. Every reader can project their own experience onto it, imagine something slightly different—their own version of “the worst thing.” Few readers, if any, would fail to imagine something.
It is tempting to try to qualify the type of readership these poems should appeal to: e.g., “for those looking for masterfully-crafted work in the tradition of Anthony Hecht” (who wrote an endorsement for The Optimist shortly before his death). But, really, these poems transcend a specific audience. Masterfully crafted and elegantly musical in their language, they bring into sharp relief the most universal aspects of the human experience, and it is that vivid acknowledgement of what makes the world tick that invigorates the poems, even the tragic ones. One cannot help feeling delighted, a bit like the protagonist of the playful-yet-poignant “The Swan Song” (The Optimist), who smiles at his imagined connection with his surroundings, even though his despair is the vehicle for that connection:
The retired actor watched the sky grow dim.
The porch, walled in by junipers and stone,
seemed a settling, a set, for someone else,
though it was his alone.
He leaned along the wall as he once had
at restaurant bars to eavesdrop on the chatter,
though here the alders asked continually
the same thing: “What’s the matter?”
But then, sometimes, gravel against a tire,
or the blown page of a book left on his chair,
or ice that settled in a forlorn glass
applauded his despair.
Those times he’d step inside the sliding door,
enchanted with his high, tragic style,
pull down the curtains on the maudlin moon,
and crack his old, arch smile.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image] Originally from Moscow, Russia, Anton Yakovlev lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey and works as a college textbook editor. He studied filmmaking and poetry at Harvard University. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Raintown Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Angle, Cardinal Points Literary Journal, The New Verse News, The Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow and elsewhere. He has also directed several short filmsAnton’s debut chapbook, Neptune Court, was one of this year’s OF SYSTEMS OF Chapbook Series from the Operating System, which has been so wildly popular, it’s already in its second printing. He’ll be joining us for the 30/30/30 LIVE! :: GROUP HUG at Mental Marginalia on 4/28.
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