Rest, Unrest, and Redefining Humanity: A review of A Northern Spring by Matt Mauch

Reviewed by Gillian Perry

A Northern Spring
by Matt Mauch
Trio House Press
July 2023. 200 pages. $18.00, paper, ISBN-13L 978-1949487169

Living through 2020 in America could be considered a communal experience. We faced an unprecedented pandemic. We experienced the horrors of police brutality and racism as well as  the rebirth of Black Lives Matter, a movement that never died to begin with. In all our time indoors we turned to activism on social media, to baking sourdough bread and making whipped coffee, to reconsidering our careers, relationships, and lives. Though Matt Mauch also experienced these upheavals, his new multi-genre poetry collection  A Northern Spring points to a universal truth in all times of plague, panic, and isolation—though we experience the same things, as individuals, our perspectives determine what we make of them. In braiding his ruminative nonfiction with his soaring lyrical poetry, Mauch paints his 2020 in beautiful lines, hard truths, and the dual mundanity and terror of being stranded internationally as the world shut down. In writing from two Northern settings, Mauch explores what a time of rest and unrest can reveal about the human experience. In blurring genre and form, Mauch stands apart as a writer, but also intends to reach any and all readers. Through his distinctly individual perspective, Mauch writes to a universal audience—we can all recognize the unsettling of “normality” that we experienced in 2020, but only Mauch can capture it with such poignancy and beauty. 

In the opening pages of the book Mauch, in a text to “P,” writes “I feel a need to return, like a past life bubbling up into the present life of one who claims they are not singular but made of many things” (25). The form of this text allows for past and present to coexist on the page, and the multitudes of his experience to be depicted. As Mauch takes us hour by hour through his departure from Ireland, time passes through the shuttering of businesses and his slimming encounters with other people. Though there are timestamps, Mauch only remarks on what feels otherworldly, or as he puts it, “…existing in the ever-popular ‘different dimesnions’” (20). The transition of these alien events from buying his own toothbrush in Prelude 1 to waiting in never-ending, dystopian lines at the Dublin airport in Prelude 4 mirror the escalation of the pandemic, the severity of the panic, the realization that the world was shutting down. The danger in writing pandemic centered texts is returning to universal trauma that no-one truly wishes to experience again. Mauch handles this problem with care as the reader never spends too much time bogged down in the particulars of the horror, trauma, or danger of the fact that he is stuck internationally. Instead, Mauch pairs the minutiae of his departure with the lyricism of his poetry—the distance of observation with the confidentiality of introspection. It is the transition between these genres, travelogue, nonfiction, history, and poetry, that allows the shades of Mauch’s experience to be palatable and at their best, evocative and touching. 

Mauch utilizes the Preludes to ground his readers in his reality, however the true depth of this text is offered in his poetry.  “Certain experts not being on the list, we perform no-longer-essential services on the fly, as DIYishly as we’re able” (80-83) asks readers to consider their own impacts and questions how to determine who and what can be called essential. In “How long must it last before we return to burying pets in our yards, our kin in family plots?” (100-101), Mauch asks his reader to consider “Which of us is carrying/and which is the carried.” One of the closing poems, “I am in the sun’s display case, a kind of troubadour stage,” (174-175) offers maybe the closest look to Mauch’s state of mind, asking readers, who are we but reflections of what we experience? And, how can we determine identity when the world is in such a state of flux? The through-line between all of these poems is not just commentary on the way our bodies hold space in the world, and not simply startling lines and beautiful imagery, but instead these difficult, layered questions about who we are and the validity of our perspectives. When the world experiences collective trauma—death, illness, revolution, corruption—how can we define ourselves as both community allies and also individuals? And, what better to confront hard realities than with the softness of a poem, depicting the fracturing of experience through line and stanza breaks? 

Mauch’s poetry allows for readers to experience his 2020 through a more ruminative and philosophical lens. Hands become a motif for memory, especially in poems such as “Now that we know our hands are sacred texts” (119),” rather than a reminder of obsessive hand-washing. Joy is recast through a legion of perspectives and images, rather than stated as something amorphous we can can cast as “pre” and “post” pandemic. I’m particularly struck by this depiction of joy, “The sun reflects rapid-fire/off the 18 bus, its/windows like a geode/sending a message/we decipher/as a new strain of joy…”(138).  Can joy be treated as a strain infecting the human condition? Can it be “deciphered” from a glint of sun? Mauch convinces me that this is the joy to hold on to, the threads of light that connect us in our humanity. Mauch uses the space of this text (and the blurred lines of genre) to draw connection not just between his readers, but also between the troubles in Belfast with the murder of George Floyd in his home of Minneapolis, the 1917 Spanish Influenza with COVID-19, proving that these multitudes he experience are not actually singular to him. By paralleling all of these experiences, Mauch points to our unity as a human species. Even if we define experience in vastly different ways, our collaged experiences are what make up our collective humanity. 

I couldn’t help but notice that in his acknowledgements, Mauch thanks his cats Cleo and Charlie. He states, “The moniker ‘pet’ does not do justice to the home you make of our house” (199). Mauch’s charm infuses this hybrid work with the joy he seeks to define. And, even in these acknowledgements, Mauch is seeking to redefine monikers, to recast the language we use to define our relationships and experience. Mauch’s curiosity and philosophical pursuit is the reason to read this book—if we could all think of the human condition with as much grace and intense interest as he demonstrates in A Northern Spring, we may all be able to understand each other better.

About the reviewer: Gillian Perry is a writer originally from California, currently in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is a fiction MFA graduate of UNC Greensboro. You can find other work of hers in the Carolina Quarterly and Heavy Feather Review.