Accepting the Disaster

Accepting the Disaster

by Joshua Mehigan


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One of The New York Times' 10 Favorite Poetry Books of 2014

An astonishing new collection from one of our finest emerging poets

A shark's tooth, the shape-shifting cloud drifting from a smokestack, the smoke detectors that hang, ominous but disregarded, overhead—very little escapes the watchful eye of Joshua Mehigan. The poems in Accepting the Disaster range from lyric miniatures like "The Crossroads," a six-line sketch of an accident scene, to "The Orange Bottle," an expansive narrative page-turner whose main character suffers a psychotic episode after quitting medication. Mehigan blends the naturalistic milieu of such great chroniclers of American life as Stephen Crane and Studs Terkel with the cinematic menace and wonder of Fritz Lang. Balanced by the music of his verse, this unusual combination brings an eerie resonance to the real lives and institutions it evokes.

These poems capture with equal tact the sinister quiet of a deserted Main Street, the tragic grandiosity of Michael Jackson, the loneliness of a self-loathing professor, the din of a cement factory, and the saving grandeur of the natural world. This much-anticipated second collection is the work of a nearly unrivaled craftsman, whose first book was called by Poetry "a work of some poise and finish, by turns delicate and robust."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374100988
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.65(w) x 8.47(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

Joshua Mehigan's first book, The Optimist, was a finalist for the 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Poetry, where he has been a frequent contributor of poems and essays. His writing has also been featured in Poetry Daily and The Writer's Almanac, and in numerous anthologies. He is the recent recipient of Poetry magazine's 2013 Levinson Prize and of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Mehigan lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Accepting the Disaster

By Joshua Mehigan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 Joshua Mehigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71337-9



    Nothing has changed. They have a welcome sign,
    a hill with cows and a white house on top,
    a mall and grocery store where people shop,
    a diner where some people go to dine.
    It is the same no matter where you go,
    and downtown you will find no big surprises.
    Each fall the dew point falls until it rises.
    White snow, green buds, green lawn, red leaves, white snow.

    This is all right. This is their hope. And yet,
    though what you see is never what you get,
    it does feel somehow changed from what it was.
    Is it the people? Houses? Fields? The weather?
    Is it the streets? Is it these things together?
    Nothing here ever changes, till it does.

    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.

    The smoke thinned the attention.
    Its aspect kept transforming.
    It could look like a cloud, or like
    mosquitoes swarming.

    The smokestack's bricks were yellow,
    and its mouth twenty feet wide.
    Its smoke was usually pale,
    but there was a rust color on its side.

    The smoke was yellow coral,
    a bouquet of yellow roses,
    a yellow beard, a yellow eye,
    and sometimes runny noses.

    Often it looked heavy
    like junipers under snow.
    At dawn it was limpidly pink
    and shaped like an embryo.

    It could look like Cuba
    as seen from outer space.
    It could look like a pedestal stone.
    It could look like Jesus' face.

    The busy residents
    tended to ignore it,
    though no one alive remembered
    a time before it.

    Sometimes it looked like ermine,
    sometimes like elderflower.
    Sometimes it looked like a Persian cat,
    and sometimes like power.

    It came before Lincoln Steffens.
    It survived Eric Blair.
    It was older than stop signs.
    It would always be there,

    resembling a tuxedo ruffle,
    or an elephant head,
    or a balled-up blanket
    on a hospital bed.

    It stopped three times a year,
    but only for one day.
    Once, in the '30s, it seemed to die.
    Many families went away.

    But it stayed dead a week,
    and when it was resurrected,
    the sky turned black, and then white,
    as if a new pope were elected.

    To labor it looked like a witness,
    to management a snitch,
    to both victim and perpetrator
    it looked like getting rich.

    At the Chamber of Commerce,
    on a postcard of the square,
    you'd find it in the background,
    diminutive but there.

    On cool summer evenings,
    it billowed like azure silk.
    On cold winter mornings,
    it spread like spilled milk.

    Fire Safety
    Aluminum tank
    indifferent in its place

    behind a glass door
    in the passageway,

    like a tea urn
    in a museum case;

    that dumbly spend each day

    waiting for gas or smoke
    or hands or heat,

    positioned like beige land mines

    sanguine on walls,
    or posted on the street

    like dwarf grandfather clocks
    spray-painted red;

    little gray hydrant
    in its warlike stance;

    old fire escape,
    all-weather paint job peeling,

    a shelf for mildewed rugs
    and yellowing plants;

    sprinkler heads,
    blooming from the public ceiling;

    all sitting
    supernaturally still,

    waiting for us to cry out.
    And we will.

    The Sponge

    None of us understands our story better
    than this nonentity, unconscious slip
    of nature, nonetheless our common parent
    dilating at the bottom of the sea.

    The parent, too, of octopus and pony,
    of reefs and villages, once it was strange
    simply for being not a rock itself—
    not rock, but a blank sleep on a rock shelf.

    And, deeply sympathetic to the rock,
    to sea and sea dust washing through its skin,
    it knows, although it doesn't know it knows,
    that minds and their milieux are all one thing.

    Some see its way of thinking; most, not yet.
    Still, one day, just by living, all will find
    reason enough within themselves to think
    the single thought forever in its mind.

    The Crossroads

    This is the place it happened. It was here.
    You might not know it was unless you knew.
    All day the cars blow past and disappear.
    This is the place it happened. It was here.
    Look at the sparkling dust, the oily smear.
    Look at the highway marker, still askew.
    This is the place it happened. It was here.
    You might not know it was unless you knew.

    The Cement Plant

    The cement plant was like a huge still
    nailed in gray corrugated panels
    and left out forty-five years ago
    in the null center of a meadow
    to tax itself to remorseless death
    near a black stream and briars, where
    from the moment it began to breathe
    it began falling apart and burning.
    But it still went, and the men were paid.

    The plant made dust. Impalpably fine,
    hung in a tawny alkaline cloud,
    swept into drifts against mill-room piers,
    frozen by rain on silo ledges,
    dust was its first and its final cause.
    Pinups were traced on their car windshields.
    Dust gave them jobs, and killed some of them.
    Late into evening their teeth grated.
    Its product was dust, its problem dust.

    The thing was blind to all its own ends
    but the one. Men's ordinary lives,
    measured out on a scale alien
    to that on which its life was measured,
    were spent in crawling the junk machine,
    fitting new gaskets, screws, and bearings,
    deceiving it toward the mood required
    for it to avail and pay. Somehow
    it did. None cheered it. It sustained them.

    The Hill

    On the crowded hill bordering the mill,
    across the shallow stream, nearer than they seem,
    they wait and will be waiting.

    Rain. The small smilax is the same to the fly
    as the big bush of lilacs exploding nearby.
    The rain may be abating.

    On the quiet hill beside the droning mill,
    across the dirty stream, nearer than they seem,
    they wait and will be waiting.

    The glass-eyed cicada drones in the linden draped like a tent
    above three polished stones. Aphids swarm at the scent
    of the yellow petals.

    A bird comes to prod a clump of wet fur.
    The ferns idiotically nod when she takes it away with her.
    Something somewhere settles.

    On the crowded hill bordering the mill
    is our best cemetery, pretty, but not very.
    All are welcome here.

    Sun finds a bare teak box on the tidy green plot.
    It finds lichen-crusted blocks fringed with forget-me-not.
    Angels preen everywhere.

    On the crowded hill bordering the mill
    is our best cemetery, pretty, but not very.
    All are welcome here.

    Joe Pipe

    The black cowboy hat
    with buffalo-nickel trim,
    the fine nose and mustache that sat
    under the wide brim
    like a dopey disguise,
    and, out of sight of the sun,
    the black button eyes
    fixed far ahead of him
    in deep thought, or none:

    that man was something to see,
    one large boot, also black,
    up on his delicate knee
    as he spread out and settled back
    on a park bench or, standing to go,
    raised to his ear again
    the dumb radio
    with the hole at the back
    where the batteries should have been;

    or at the bowling alley,
    in awkward company
    of others like him—though really,
    hatless and bootless, he
    might be their overseer,
    sliding to a full stop like
    a bright Olympic skier
    in a lip-balm ad on TV ...
    and, after, the rumbling, the strike;

    then the shoe desk, and one beside him
    to help with left and right;
    and outside, from his vest, the star item,
    brought matter-of-factly to light:
    the pipe, trick answer to
    the question of his face,
    hung like the tail of a Q
    from his solemn overbite
    as though books and a fireplace

    awaited somewhere, though
    his pipe was less plausible than
    even the radio,
    being plastic. Good if that man,
    who would have no spouse or car,
    could feel that a toy, along
    with the clothes and the boots that he wore,
    made him like other men.
    Also, he was not wrong.

    The Forecast

    Here nothing moves across the even sky,
    and nothing moves the mile of dusty corn.
    Nearby, the red house sleeps beneath a tree,
    the house he put there, near the pine he planted
    some past September, waiting for the weather
    and corn to work out all the final details.

    March lion.
    March lamb.
    April showers.
    May flowers.
    Soon June's
    soft scion.
    Then August's
    battering ram.
    October sours
    May bowers.

    Down in the Valley

    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.

    The Fair

    The fair rolled into town surprisingly
    intact, like a plate unbreakable because
    it has been dropped and glued so many times
    that it is all glue and no plate. The fair
    was no fair. But, oh, it was a thrill!

    The fair slid into town just as a clown
    slides into pants. The fit was loose but right.
    The sheriff had a job directing traffic.
    The barber was the sheriff for a night,
    and people paid to see a human ape.
    They frowned to find her happy and alive.

    The fair spilled into town like a box of tacks.
    Later that month, in with the rest at church,
    were people no one knew,
    though none could tell exactly who was who.

    Work Song

    This fastening, unfastening, and heaving—
    this is our life. Whose life is it improving?
    It topples some. Some others it will toughen.
    Work is the safest way to fail, and often
    the simplest way to love a son or daughter.
    We come. We carp. We're fired. We worry later.

    That man is strange. His calipers are shiny.
    His hands are black. For lunch he brings baloney,
    and, offered coffee, answers, "Thank you, no."
    That man, with nothing evil left to do
    and two small skills to stir some interest up,
    fits in his curtained corner of the shop.

    The best part of our life is disappearing
    into the john to sneak a smoke, or staring
    at screaming nonstop mills, our eyes unfocused,
    or standing judging whose sick joke is sickest.
    Yet nothing you could do could break our silence.
    We are a check. Do not expect a balance.

    That is a wrathful man becoming older,
    a nobody like us, turned mortgage holder.
    We stay until the bell. That man will stay
    ten minutes more, so no one can complain.
    Each day, by then, he's done exactly ten.
    Ten what, exactly, no one here can say.


    Yes, we were kind, and brave, and honest once.
    Beige foyer to tan restroom to beige chapel,
    the fifty folding chairs, the eighteen people,
    and, somewhere, him. My suit coat pulls my shoulders.
    Monica, Bob, Amanda, Mike, and Pam,
    how terrible to see you all again.
    The reverend, too: an incorrect assumption.

    And, laid apart beneath the track lights, what?
    Collarless white tuxedo shirt. A mullet.
    The unimaginably bad foundation.
    Comic books, slipped in by his long-lost father,
    whom someone told his son liked comic books.
    A small laugh, burning nose, and in my eyes
    a little water. Home. Feet somewhat sore.

    Later tonight, the full cost being paid,
    we gather in a dark place outside town
    and, in accordance with his simple will,
    Monica, Pam, Amanda, Mike, and Bob,
    Pistol and Doll, Shadow and Rumour, and I
    drink up what little money he had saved.
    And now we're mean. We're terrified. We lie.

    On the Way to Church School

    The girls and boys
    that stammer by
    at one o'clock
    stretch half a block.
    Clouds follow them;
    also, the steeple.

    The tallest and others
    waiting to see
    what the tallest will do
    tie parkas of blue,
    yellow, or red
    around their waists.

    Already lost,
    one boy had tied
    a parka of red
    around his head.
    That boy now lies
    shoved on the grass.

    Ms. Bell, who ably
    shepherds them,
    and Mrs. Stack,
    in the way-back,
    coolly chide
    but do not holler.

    The smallest pause
    with giant eyes.
    The sidewalk glints
    at the innocents
    so like people
    only smaller.


Excerpted from Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan. Copyright © 2014 Joshua Mehigan. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



The Smokestack

Fire Safety

The Sponge

The Crossroads

The Cement Plant

The Hill

Joe Pipe

The Forecast

Down in the Valley

The Fair

Work Song


On the Way to Church School

Sad Stories

Father Birmingham

The Bowl

At Home


Epitaph Carved on a Shin Bone

Cold Turkey

The Dream Job


How Strange, How Sweet

Heard at the Men's Mission


The Polling Place

The Professor

The Library

The Orange Bottle

The News

The Payphone

The Chemist

Believe It


Accepting the Disaster

Shark's Tooth

Customer Reviews