Sunday, August 17, 2014

`An Incomparable Way of Living Life'

Because of the attention it pays to the details of work and place, and its human sympathy (“Men’s ordinary lives / measured out on a scale alien / to that on which its life was measured”), one of the best poems in Joshua Mehigan’s Accepting the Disaster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) is “The Cement Plant.” Now we learn Mehigan is describing a real place a few miles from where I lived for almost four years. I moved from Schenectady to Selkirk, N.Y., in the summer of 1988, and rented a house on Old Ravena Road. That same summer, Mehigan took a job as a laborer at the cement plant in Ravena where his father worked for thirty-five years as a welder. There’s another unintended resonance. Whenever I saw the cement plant with its smokestack and silos I remembered the Municipal Electric Light Plant in Cleveland, always known as Muny Light, where my father, also a welder, worked for thirty years.

What’s important here is that none of this autobiographical subtext is necessary for appreciating Mehigan’s poem. It adds a new layer of connections for me but “The Cement Plant” remains autonomous, requiring no personal scaffolding. Mehigan’s poem is the opposite of confessional. The novelist Howard Jacobson writes in his most recent column for The Independent:
“To lose oneself in making art – all questions of quality apart – is an incomparable way of living life. Never mind self-expression. The truly wonderful thing about being a painter, a writer or a musician is escaping self. You light the touch paper, step back, and watch the pages or the canvas explode.”

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