Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mauch's is a new poetry, is a theory of mine: Review of Matt Mauch's "If You're Lucky Is A Theory of Mine," by Stacia M. Fleegal

If You’re Lucky Is a Theory of Mine is Matt Mauch’s second full-length collection of poetry, and it just slays me. Mauch has the delivery of a comedian—not Dane Cook, but an actual comedic genius (sorry Cook fans...sort of). The hyper-specificity, the virtuosic phrasing, the ability to relate to nearly anyone on a universal level—it’s all working for him, and doing the quiet work of his poems, which is to say, showing off verbally.

But where there would be ego in the conversational acrobatics of others, Mauch has inserted humility, a thoughtfulness about and for his subjects that doesn’t let up even in poems about, I presume, himself and his experiences. So in a completely different way, he slays me again, with his generosity and big old heart.

His reflections aren’t always cozy. There are funerals, there are “awful years,” there is a keen awareness of mortality. In “From the owner’s manual,” there is fear of becoming “some nobody who believed it when they said / (girls) you were a princess, or that you could grow up // (boys) to be the President of the USA” (p. 43). A poem ending that way can make me so angry with its truth, but then, I flip around and read a title like “Every view is oceanic if you focus on the sky” and think, I can handle that truth from this poet. Mauch is the kind, gracious bearer of bad news who will emotionally clobber you, then take you to a dive bar to fund your co-commiseration.


Mauch genuflects, actually. He’s willing to be wrong; or at least, he comes off unselfconscious in his musings. I wonder if he thinks poems live in rabbit holes, if they must be chased and caught. He, incidentally, would wonder that, too, only he’d simultaneously be wondering about the dimensions of rabbit holes, if rabbits dig, if they burrow, or if they find abandoned holes, and what abandoned them and how can we tell for sure, and what relative or cigarette-smoking girl at a bus stop reminds him of the either purely opportunistic freeloader rabbit or the allegory-for-Midwestern-work-ethic rabbit. And he’d be wondering it on paper, and it would be a poem, now a rabbit, now bounding away…

Phew. These are difficult poems only in the sense of being able to keep up, because they are also dazzling poems, because Mauch is a poet who is dazzled by the smallest of miracles: “A cottonwood seed atop a blade of grass, in an I’ll-never-see-anything-like-this-again-in-my-life balancing act,” is one of his titles. His attention to the natural world is pure Romanticism—ecstatically so. Still, he knows his place in this world is as witness, not a cataclysmic force, and it isn’t always an easy realization: “I was not / the me I had hoped to be.” And still, he consoles himself, and us: “Before ripe turns rot, I said, I say, / open your mouth. Swallow yourself” (p. 32).

In “What sort of father do you think you would have made anyway?” Mauch answers his own question with more questions. “What are you, if after overhearing a boy / call a more realist than impressionist elk sculpture a moose // you want there to be a test with the difference on it, / something painful the consequence of failing?” (p. 41), he asks rhetorically, comically, honestly. He seems to take the long way around in his asking, but really, you’re kind of out on a country drive with him, and you’re going to get to where you’re going, but you’re going to see some shit first, and be better for it, just trust him.

This poet’s vision of a complete picture gathers in every relevance, every evocation, and we trust him more and more with each smooth corner of a phrase. Alternative, parallel, often more grandiose takes on would-be banal observations radiate, ripple-effect, from the initial plop of an image. They meander—but with aim, purpose—in lines full of muscle and rhythm. In a poem about a brother, these anti-tangential lines deepen a character sketch in a way a true lyric (too inauthentic) can’t and a straightforward narrative (too artless) won’t. Mauch’s is a new poetry, colloquialism wrapped in a child’s superhero clothespin-blanket cape of bottomless wonder. He is your favorite cousin drunk at a party and loving life: nothing he says is boring or wrong in any way, and you’re really glad he’s here and talking to you.

If you’re lucky, you already own this book.

Mauch, Matt. If You’re Lucky Is a Theory of Mine. Trio House Press, 2013. 89 pages.

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