In the February 2013 issue of Poetry, Peter Campion plays literary detective, tracking the footprints of Tom O'Bedlam across poetic history. Who was Tom O' Bedlam? The term originally referred to a patient from the English mental institution known as Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam; it came to mean, more generally, a madman.
For Campion, Tom O' Bedlam is "that lunatic who peppers the entire history of poetry in English." He shows up in King Lear, in anonymous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poems, and more recently in the works of Derek Walcott. "Behind the character of Tom O’ Bedlam," Campion writes, "there lies a mysterious but identifiable intelligence." He points out how that intelligence illuminates the prattle of Lear's Edgar, who sometimes impersonates Tom:
Who gives any thing to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through [ford] and whirlpool o’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow, and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting-horse over four-inch’d bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor.
When Edgar channels Tom, Campion writes, something marvelous happens: "his speech itself becomes host to an ingenious force, as if a crazed but fluent shadow-self gushed from his mouth." Without the benefit of Tom’s influence, Edgar’s lines are "virtuous, dutiful, and dull.”
In his poem "The Orange Bottle," Joshua Mehigan permits such a "crazed but fluent shadow-self" to flow from the mouth of his speaker. Just as madness turns staid Edgar into a poetic prophet, so does mental imbalance enable Mehigan’s character to embark on exciting linguistic experiments. Here, he questions whether his psychiatric medication is altogether safe:
The insert said warning, said caution. The insert said constipation.
It said insomnia, vivid dreams,
and increased urination,
and a spinning sensation.
Through its plentiful rhymes and reprisals—note the chiming repetition of "-ation"—the poem itself induces a spinning sensation. It further disorients by recalling traditional formal schemes only to rebuff them: the stanza stretches beyond the usual four lines, and the galloping meter of its first line buckles in the second.
Mehigan similarly overturns our expectations in this stanza, which lasts six lines:
He lay on his side on the rug
unable to move at all
except for his big right toe,
which dug and dug at the wall,
which dug at the wall,
The rhyme for "rug"—"dug"—arrives, oddly, in the middle of a line, and then recurs three times. In a canny match of form and function, the stanza's stuttering, repetitive final lines themselves seem stuck, "unable to move," and they slouch on the page in a visual echo of the speaker’s position.
All this disorientation makes sense; we’re as lost in the speaker’s world as he is. Mehigan enhances our confusion by providing contradictory descriptions: the drug is both "cure" and "poison," and speaker both "victim" and "threat." "He was crooked and useless. / He was a piece of shit," we learn, and a few lines later: "he was a famous doctor / on a television show." The poem’s use of "take" throws us further off balance: the word rarely means the same thing twice. The medicine tells the speaker: "Don't take me!" When he hopes he won't be carted away, the speaker shouts those same words but tweaks their meaning: "Don't take me!" The patrolman, hitting the speaker, says: "Take that!", and the doctor and nurse repeat the expression, but gently, when encouraging the speaker to swallow medicine: "Take that."
Mehigan’s speaker, like Campion's Tom, embarks on wild twists of thought and turns of phrase, and the poem raises the same question that Campion's essay does: can madness permit literary brilliance? Toward the end of the poem he provides a rhythmic, impressionistic litany that might be beyond the capacity of a saner speaker:
“Tick-tock,” said the clock.
“Creak, creak,” said the bed.
“Drip, drip,” said the sink.
“Throb, throb,” went his head.
“Ho-hum,” sighed the night nurse.
“Heh-heh,” said the sicko.
“Why? Why?” screamed the patient.
“Howl, howl!” cried the psycho.
“Wolf! Wolf!” cried the boy.
“Gobble, gobble!” sang the freaks.
“Sa, sa!” cried the king.
“Tick-tock,” went the weeks.
But once he starts taking medicine and leaves the hospital, the lines lose such exuberance; the speaker himself notes that "his speech [is] oddly flat." Did madness lend spikes and spice to his speech, and should we thus lament his transition into sanity?
Campion is careful distinguish between literary and real madness: "the figure of Mad Tom works to question our notions not about madness — actual mad speech, in my experience, tends to be tedious and predictable — but about the mad way that we are possessed by language even as we endeavor to possess and shape it." Do you consider madness in literature a metaphor for the act of writing? Are all poets, on some level, mad, and their speakers too? How about lay users of language, who don't publish poems but merely strive to express themselves in conversation? When language takes us over, directs us toward a joke or complaint or unexpected revelation—is there a tinge of madness to such moments?