(Ponte Vedra Beach, FL: Trio House Press, 2017)
Have you ever stopped to watch a star or a tree, only to turn away after a moment? If you have, then you’re familiar with the feeling you get just as you turn away: maybe if you had only watched a bit longer, something transformative would have been revealed, some secret of the universe. The poems in Bird~Brain are the fruits of Matt Mauch, and his having lingered long enough to glean, if not universal secrets, at least some exciting possibilities.
I once heard someone say that when it comes to poems, there is no time to waste; Mauch seems to have adopted this approach. Many of the titles in the book read like the first line of the poem, and they work as a kind of shove in the back, pushing us headlong into the world in which these poems operate. The first poem in the book, “For every obvious thing, there’s a three-dimensional chess set of subtextual things,” opens with a more or less standard issue image: “that a songbird, arrived from summering north of here,/ reminds me of, of / all that I’ve lost.” It’s a beautifully constructed piece of writing: the bouncing rhythm, the repeating s-sounds. But the poem (and this is what makes this book so compelling) dives into the bird, and reaches into the silent, glowing center of things. Here’s the next sentence:
The bird, like an estate sale ad
packed with so many implausibly well-kept
treasures, it’s no big thing it has a heart,
can fly away when it needs to,
sings as if it’s been sinkhole-swallowing
since the dawn of story time, is blowing them stunningly
out now along the trough of a rolled wet tongue
aimed at the window I once took a photograph of lightning through.
It’s difficult not to be bowled over by the sheer force of imagination. But the poems in this book are about (whatever that means) more than metaphor and simile, albeit incredibly creative ones; they’re about (whatever that means) the desire we all have to know and see that which eludes us. At the poem’s close we hear a sound or a song, and we turn, “hoping that what we heard is / exactly what we thought we did.” It’s not the knowing or the not-knowing that is foregrounded here; it’s the going-for-it that’s important.
These poems feel as if they were written not to point out things that happen (or things that don’t), but instead to discover. The images and goings-on are not observed but inhabited and carried to their extremes, as in the poem “Half of the battle of learning is learning what it is you can write for yourself.” Here Mauch writes,
Time stands naked
before the full-length mirror in its hotel room, wondering
if a medal against its chest would be cold.
Just as naked on the other side of the wall,
in an adjoining room with the door locked,
I’m writing the story of the goose that fell asleep dreaming
of its thin-air high
woke with its feet frozen in ice, like it was a kind of handle
on a kind of lid covering the lake,
which is the story of the prospect of pressure building
until it becomes the story of flight.
This is a poetry of trying, of time spent searching for a vision of some fleeting truth (or not-truth).
Read this book to see a gymnast-poet in mid pommel horse routine; read this book for its testimony to all things just under our collective noses. Matt Mauch says it best: “I crawl out of my skin, a la snake, / see my old hollow face / with a new wet one / I vomit up a brook, cough out birds. / You probably didn’t see.” Bird~Brain gives us a second chance at seeing what we’ve missed.
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Hayden Bergman lives in Abilene, Texas. He is an MFA candidate at Fairleigh Dickinson University.