Matt Mauch’s visionary collection of memoir poems, A Northern Spring, centers itself in the midst of March-May 2020, before the pandemic was officially announced, named, or comprehended. Within this obscure context, the speaker offers a firsthand account of his travels from Derry, Ireland to his hometown of Minneapolis, amidst the threat of a global pandemic. This is a unique vantage point to witness the comparisons and contrasts from one country to another, both in historical terms, as well as the setting of this collection. The speaker is trying to make sense of an ever changing situation, at a time when the future danger wasn’t yet a present reality. While reading this volume, I was reminded of Neil Theise’s Notes on Complexity, whereby “riddles of our sense of being,” are illuminated by complexity theory, as he shares Jane Prophet’s explanation that “…simple individual behaviors can collectively give rise to astoundingly complex social structures and activities.” So too is Mauch’s work here an extension and deepening of this conversation surrounding humans’ abilities to continually adapt and organize, given highly unpredictable and disorderly situations bordering on chaos. “To better become / the kind of riddle we use / to define what we can’t.”
Even within the table of contents, the reader gets the innate sense that Mauch aims to understand the unknowable over the sequence of four preludes. The poem titles are single and multiple line fragments that mimic a person cut off in mid thought or conversation. This technique is a fitting metaphor for the speaker’s fractured, yet developing, understanding of the imminent disease and its relationship to himself, as “bait,” remaining alert for this invisible predator’s attack. While the corresponding poems expand upon these threads, their initial lure sets the tone for the work as a whole. The speaker early on asserts himself as a layperson, an “idiot tale-telling,” a diarist hearkening back to older traditions of writing styles employed during previous tragedies and world events. He is a curious traveler filled with doubts and insecurities, but the prelude prose poems (as text messages) are trustworthy scaffolds, linkages between the historical “troubles” and the current COVID emergence. In this way, the speaker is assuring the reader (and perhaps himself) that “we’ll-probably-come-out-of-this,” while likewise acknowledging “‘unprecedented’ has a shelf life of about a hundred years.”
As the speaker tries to organize the disorder of in-the-moment events, he tells his tale via flashback lenses of safety and distance. His inclusion of hindsight reflections with all of the “guarded optimism” of autumn 2019, “when Warren and Sanders were leading the race,” take the reader back to a more hopeful space and time. While the pandemic was certainly an unparalleled occurrence for those living in 2020, there were many natural disaster predecessors of COVID. These are acknowledged in the prose sections, all the while spotlighting the comparisons that can be drawn, as humans’ persistence to rebuild and survive is a shared interconnection within each historical context. The speaker of these prose poems acts similar to an embedded journalist, reporting the history of Derry’s political murals and monuments, while likewise warning the collective “we” of the dangers of erasure and societal amnesia. Is the ability for humans to show resilience the result of remembering and respecting previous adversity, or due to their facility in acclimating and systematizing, despite these negative factors? Consider the one remaining bomb cage in Northern Ireland that some feel should be dismantled, to “put this aspect of the past in the past,” which the speaker is quick to point out is “rather American of them.” However, the speaker’s beliefs housed in the “‘keep it so you don’t forget’ camp,” are pivotal driving forces throughout this entire collection. If humans don’t pay the proper respect to history, and keep a written or visual account of their trials, how will future generations learn? Humans sure are quick to relegate history to a back vast catalog, dusty exhibits rarely revisited, “like a thing one neglected to love...or pass through...hopeful it’s a relic.”
The poems that punctuate the prose break away from the tone and style of writing used by a travelogue observer, in order to give way to organized streams of consciousness. These figuratively reflect on the speaker’s journey home, the changing rules and regulations, and multiple increasing social tensions. As the speaker’s pandemic knowledge fluctuates, these poems reflect his shadowy comprehension and likewise call to mind themes evident in prior prose sections. The meals in Derry now stand in stark contrast to the food at home: “…the meal / is the collection of observations / gathered by the wandering self...” Additionally, Mauch’s use of white space illustrates the gaps of knowledge that existed during lockdown, as well as the theme of movement. Images of the speaker pacing at home, walking around his neighborhood, and his earlier travels are all held within these white spaces. These free verse patterns emulate the large expanses of time that everyone experienced during lockdown with one thought or fear leading to another, and another, infinitely: “…as if I were a post-vacation phone / with no storage left. / I did not know I was carrying / so much.”
To compound the moment, “Dangerous / isn’t as dangerous / as it used to be.” Not only is the world dealing with a deadly virus, it is also reckoning with “…experiential disparities provided to the wealthy youth...that begin blossoming at birth.” These imbalances boil up, forcing the speaker to choose whether to remain an eyewitness to the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, or to act as a participant in the protests. In this work, there is a constant movement from one space to another, physically and mentally, as the speaker is thrust into fight or flight scenarios. He descends into philosophical contemplations, which lead to questions of mortality and remembrance: “Which of us is carrying / and which is the carried...” Those ever present images of the political murals in Derry and Belfast come flooding back, now in the context of both Minneapolis and Irish murals constructed to memorialize George Floyd and protest the violent escalations. Once again, the speaker is reunited with his time in Ireland, and is reassured by his choices: “We are still fighting for civil rights. Having Minneapolis on fire...the history of Derry and Belfast...cements in my gut what a mural really can be and do.” And therein lies the strength of this body of work as a monumentalization that adds to “the whir of art from decades, centuries, and longer ago, from times of unease and recovery.” This collection will serve to guide us as we are “aiming for horizons and shores, / this “hand-in-hand, / the stone-of-then / indistinguishable from the stone-of-now, slingshot anew,” and somehow we will endlessly connect human to human, as part of an ever evolving complex system.
Shannon Vare Christine is a poet, teacher, and critic living in Bucks County, PA. She is an alumnus of The Community of Writers and Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. Her poems have been featured in various anthologies and publications. Additionally, her poetry reviews and literary criticism have been published or are forthcoming in The Lit Pub, Cider Press Review, Sage Cigarettes, The Laurel Review, Vagabond City, and Tupelo Quarterly. Archived writing and more can be found at www.shannonvarechristine.com and on Instagram @smvarewrites.