Little by Little, a Lyrical Life: Tiny Extravaganzas by Diane Mehta, reviewed by Jonathan Everitt

Life’s deepest meaning is often found in the brief moments we each accumulate along the way. How do you make sense of change? What is your purpose? Where is this going? Poet Diane Mehta has composed a rich collection that asks these questions and more. “You have to lose all beginnings to know where the story / really begins,” Mehta writes in “Rendezvous,” the opening poem in Tiny Extravaganzas (Arrowsmith Press, 2023). 

Arranged in three sections, the book weaves together a range of work—flashback narratives, ekphrastic engagements, dreamy thought-trains. The collection changes key signatures like a startling symphony—each moment is a musical movement. Each is tuned to a fresh image like a different instrument. The result: a rich lyrical soundscape that shifts tempo and tone with the turn of every page.

You hear it in the clamor of “Gala Noise,” with “All morning the off-tune brimful singing / rruh-khee, scre-chee, cruk-ah, uh-hoo, zurrah / clangs a ruckus over the dream of a collective tempo / and for a fraction of a second, we hear the affections / of a world aligned.” You hear it in the quiet close-up of “The Spoon Chases a Chestnut,” which begins, “Chestnuts carousel around the soup,” forming a miniature merry-go-round in the reader’s mind. There is brilliant music in what might seem at first like a cacophony. To wit, consider one of the two epigraphs at the book’s beginning, this one from Wallace Stevens: 

When B. sat down at the piano and made

 A transparence in which we heard music, made music 

In which we heard transparent sounds, did he play 

All sorts of notes? Or did he play only one  

In an ecstasy of its associates, 

Variations in the tones of a single sound,  

The last, or sounds so single they seemed one?

Throughout the collection, the poet discovers herself through reflection—and questions where to go from here. In “Shredder,” she describes the disposal of years of records that constitute a catalog of all of the moments that add up to a life,

I feed it signatures, affidavits, stamps of approval, 

ceremonial feelings, imagined grace, the mortgage  

we paid off with the certificate of divorce, records  

of identity theft that arrived when the baby was born. 

This ordinary moment of de-cluttering becomes an epic composed of the everyday. “It’s so easy to tell a disposable story,” Mehta writes. 

Taxes older than seven years are in now,  

wastebasketed across four presidents, two men,  

and the childhood of my child who is leaving  

next year. All the paperwork is here. 

And small records can represent enormous absences. As the poet writes in in “Reading Thom Gunn’s Lament,” Mehta arrives at this realization: “Isn’t it true that absence is reticulated / presence, its shade the shadow following you?”

Consider the poem “Driver’s Seat.” This poignant memory captures the sensation of watching a son grow up. The poem is set in a field with an abandoned jeep: “The top has been sawed off and the undercarriage eaten / by enzymes and rain”. The ruin becomes a set prop for make-believe boyhood road trips—and the tricks time plays on parents. The speaker imagines the wreck coming to life in her son’s imagination: “The car designs a blueprint around him and fabricates itself.” She later observes, “He is going over the speed limit of what I can endure” and how a mother follows her son to the point of departure “before she sends him off, driving, alone.” 

Mehta also considers the future. What contributions might she make as an artist in a changing world? What lies ahead for artists everywhere? In “Of Unbecoming (The Future of AI),” Mehta contemplates the infiltration of artificial intelligence into art that raises questions about the nature of authorship—and of humanity. Unlike artificial intelligence, 

we think about stories: broken spirits, half-righted or lost  

to interior demons, murders folder up and shelved in cellars 

like ours, letters acrobatic in mind-twist yearnings  

of the quietly brilliant on the edge of truer lives. 

And, most profoundly, “A bloodless universe can’t redeem the world.”

Still, while Mehta confronts tough questions and hard truths, she expresses gratitude for her place in the world and the myriad moments that make life worthwhile.  In “The Story of Afternoons,” the poet writes, 

Riddled with riddles, I fill my fists with grapes and love  

art-of-life, measure-of goods, ways to flip inside  

out, the ridiculosity of thinking ‘now I can love’  

when I have so many extravaganzas already.

And she seems to make peace with the unknown and the uncertain in “Hymn to Endings,” the first poem in the collection’s third section, with this timely thought: “It was never going to be all abyss or bliss in end-times. / If our renunciations and correctives possess a kind of possession / we are crazier than we think.” The third section’s style shifts into more abstract territory here, while contemplating art in vivid ekphrastic stops along the way. It’s as if the poet is dozing off on a train, reflecting on life and art as the scenery flies past. She hums to us. She sings to us. All in celebration of brief moments and small observations she, the traveler, finds profound.

Just as important, through Tiny Extravaganzas, Mehta encourages the reader not only to appreciate small, marvelous things, but to create them ourselves. Later in “Hymn to Endings,” she writes, “So long it takes us to learn /  what nature had always known, that the void waits for you /  to make something unusual of it.” 

Reader, listen to her.

Jonathan Everitt is a poet and freelance writer based in Rochester, N.Y.