Well, if the New York Times Magazine can write a headline like that about fiction in January, why can’t I borrow it for poetry in February? Anyway, it’s true: Joshua Mehigan’s “The Orange Bottle,” published recently in Poetry magazine, is such a tour de force I doubt we’ll see it surpassed in 2013.
The poem is a long narrative ballad, something you could fairly call an endangered species. The style verges on the comic, even going so far as to incorporate nursery rhymes, but the story is both a hair-raiser and a heartbreaker. I have a particular fascination with “light verse” turned to serious purpose–it requires a certain bravado; think of a sculptor carving busts with a shrimp fork–and this is an especially distinguished example. W. H. Auden took a similar approach in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” itself an old-fashioned ballad, as did Elizabeth Bishop in “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s,” whose singsong quality and oblique treatment of madness may have been a starting point for Mehigan’s poem.
In “The Orange Bottle” a man goes off his meds. Plagued by severe bipolar disorder (or possibly schizophrenia), he experiences a brief manic high before plunging into psychological hell:
And the sky was the firmament!
His life was never better.
Each small white spotless cloud that passed
was like a long-wished-for letter.
But then he remembered his promise.
It came like a mild cramp,
and it sat there all day in the back of his mind
like a gas bill awaiting a stamp.
The “promise” is the promise to keep taking pills. Notice how the “letter” and “stamp” similes play subtly off one another: both of these images are homespun, yet resonant and exact, a balance Mehigan maintains throughout the poem to increasingly eerie effect. When a doctor enters “trailing / a spiderweb of cologne,” the phrase not only makes our noses tingle but evokes the web that has ensnared the patient. The same doctor reenters later, “gently restraining a yawn” that recalls the cruel restraints under which the patient has suffered all night. The most wrenching moment comes after our paranoid, erratic hero has been beaten and jailed:
Lying on his side like a child
at the end of a big day,
he gazed up through the window
and watched it all slip away.
Is it spoiling the delicate irony to point out how far from home these lines make us feel, how terribly they underscore his lack of comfort and coddling after his “big day”?
The temptation with a poem like this is to say that it “criticizes the treatment of the mentally ill in our society.” It doesn’t. It issues no pronouncements, adopts no predetermined stance. It tells a single human story, vividly and faithfully. Any shame we feel as we read it is ours to grapple with.
[Image via Shutterstock.]