I didn’t realize till two days later
it was the mirror took his breath away.
The monstrous old Victorian mirror
with the ornate gilt frame
we had found in the three-storey house
when we moved in from the country.
I was afraid it would sneak
down from the wall and swallow me up
in one gulp in the middle of the night...
I'm always fascinated by images of mirrors and windows in poems, perhaps because poems themselves often seem to act as mirrors or windows.Some poems are a glass held up to the poet's face, showing us more of them than they perhaps realise. I'm thinking of a slant self-portrait such as Hugo Williams' 'The White Hair', where the narrator stands in front of the mirror, wishing he could get rid of a memory as easily as a stray hair. Others are windows, letting us look past the poem to a world beyond, like Norman MacCaig's evocations of landscapes that defy human comparison. In his poem 'Humanism', even to relate a natural phenomenon to the world we recognise is arrogance:
What a human lie is this. What greed and what
Arrogance, not to allow
A glacier to be a glacier –
To humanise into metaphor
That long slither of ice…
|The poem: mirror or window?|
But poetry is often connected to selfishness as much as empathy. Poets are accused of being narcissists more often than they're hailed as altrusits. A fascinating notebook essay in 'Poetry' by Joshua Mehigan explores the connections between poetry and mental illness (another popular topic on this blog) and touches on the idea of self-obsession:
"I’m proud, I hope not inordinately proud, to say that I rate below average on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Then again, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which can include deficits in empathy and introspection, isn’t usually what people mean when they say “narcissist.” Most probably mean “self-centered asshole,” and, if I’m honest, I must sadly own up to matching that description for straight years at a time. Again, the private consequences partly account for my wish to avoid the mistake in poems. A close friend, also a poet, once asked me why I write poetry, and I replied that, among other things, it gives me a chance to make my narcissism palatable to others. She laughed. Her husband laughed. It was no joke. It seems to me that narcissism is ineluctably at the heart of poetry, maybe of every human enterprise. One-third of people will think I’m an idiot for bothering to state this. Two-thirds will think I’m repugnant for suggesting that poetry isn’t soul magic. But, however magical your soul, doesn’t its unveiling imply a touch of egotism? In lyric poetry, especially, some degree of narcissism seems unavoidable. Even Dickinson and Hopkins sought readers at some point. Now let us observe a moment’s silence for the Unknown Poets, who have defeated narcissism and won oblivion. Then, since there’s nothing to build on there, let us quickly turn in gratitude to their egotistical fellow poets, who reached through self-regard to give the bitter world a little beauty and insight."
This is certainly true of Joshua Mehigan's own work. Centring around moments of assumed personal significance, his deft, formal poems often achieve their generality by a kind of specificness, or vice versa. Perhaps a more appropriate metaphor for the poem is not the window or the mirror, but something else entirely - the humble bath sponge. Here's a poem by Mehigan from 'Poetry', June 2006
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.