A Review of Matt Mauch’s BIRD∼BRAIN

In the first lines of Matt Mauch’s third collection of poems, titled BirdBrain, he compares a songbird to “an estate sale ad/ packed with so many implausibly well-kept/ treasures”. The same could also be said for the poems in this book, which are packed to the brim with imagination, and dazzling in their linguistic and syntactic command. BirdBrain is frequently clever, but never crosses over into disingenuousness; rather, it is a book that soars with energy and lands with emotional precision.

The title of the book seems to be a self-deprecating acknowledgment of the struggle between the internal and external, and the manner in which we construct meaning from our surroundings. Birds appear frequently throughout the book, though Mauch avoids depicting them as mystical creatures. His birds have freedom and majesty, certainly, but they are also burdened with the duties they are responsible to perform. Similarly, the content of many of Mauch’s poems show the speaker engaged in various types of day-to-day rituals. At any given moment, the speaker may be cleaning gutters, washing dishes, or shoveling snow. These activities provide Mauch with the opportunity to project his imagination onto the domestic world in front of him. In “She loves me, she loves me not,” he writes,

A leaf (a little raking
is what I’ve done next)

wears its red dress, parties
for three or four or five straight days and nights

before it burns out, becomes a gutter leaf, or bag leaf, 
is what the hand with the pen in it writes

before the brain makes it say that even the voluptuous lips
of a moon crater

eventually erode into so much dust
in the light moon wind.

What I love about most about Mauch’s work are moments like this. Here we see a sprawling, labyrinthine sentence which opens by animating a single leaf and takes the reader on a voyage which extends beyond the life of the leaf, beyond our atmosphere, and into space. That there is also a self-awareness about the anthropomorphization of the leaf shows us another voyage—the speaker’s constant search for truth and emotional honesty.

BirdBrain also has a preoccupation with time. Just as the birds have a biological responsibility to migrate away from the harsh midwestern winters, many of these poems reflect an urgency of the duties we are obligated to execute. The issue of mortality is inseparable from this preoccupation. For instance, in the poem, “In order that I shall last as long as I can,” Mauch writes,

If bloody (because of love) I knock on your door
seeking bandages and antiseptic

I hope you have neither.
What I want you to offer

instead is some water and a vase
in which I can be pretty for a while

before I die.

Compare that with this passage in “A new day is what it was in a way that every day isn’t”:

The snow melted inside and out.
We were beginning to stumble over the corpses winter leaves behind.
We lifted shades, opened windows, waited for the light to pasteurize.

The stacks of plans on end tables, desks, sills
(that were able to) rose and crashed like birds in a hurry to migrate.

Mauch’s poems are striking in their level of activity and immediacy. These particular excerpts illustrate the life-or-death urgency of mortal beings, but notably, there’s an absence of fear. In these passages, death and beauty occupy the same spaces, which forces us to collapse and redefine our emotional boundaries. These poems are not interested in lamenting the futility of life with the inevitability of death; instead, these poems celebrate the world in front of us and all of its damaged imperfections.

Responsibilities (bird- and human-related) aside, I should also emphasize how much joy is found in this book. Make no mistake: these poems are thrilling to read. The titles, as you have probably noticed, are extensive and function as micro-poems in their own right, some of them even containing line breaks. Titles such as “The true story of how I learned that the graveyard shift meets at Prince’s for drinks at 6:30 a.m.” and “The clog I can’t get unclogged,/ which I’ll probably never tell you about/ (the drinking on company time that I will)” carry force and charisma, obviously, but most importantly, they break down the walls of where poetry has been allowed to live. With BirdBrain, Mauch argues poetry should live everywhere, and does if we are simply willing to look hard enough.

Bird∼Brain, by Matt Mauch. Trio House Press, January 2017. 138 pages. $16.00, paper.

Lucas Pingel is an assistant professor at St. Catherine University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he has been the recipient of the Denny Prize for Excellence in Writing. He has authored three chapbooks of poetry, most recently Yes, This Was a Beautiful Place, a collaboration with BJ Love.

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