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The episodic poems of 'Mz N' pack a punch

"Mz N: the Serial: A Poem-in-Episodes"
By Maureen N. McLane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
128 pages, $16

The first thing I noticed about “Mz N: the Serial: A Poem-in-Episodes” is its cover color. That was the tell-tale sign that “Mz N” was going to be an excellent volume of poems – the cover of fellow poet Daniel Borzutzky’s “The Performance of Being Human” shared almost the same shade of Pepto-Bismol pink and won a National Book Award.

But to go beyond the cliche of judging a book by its cover and this really is a fine poetry collection. Poet Maureen N. McLane – an upstate New York native – presents a work that surprises because it bares its heart on its sleeve. Though there is a disclaimer that this collection is neither a memoir nor a lyric, this doesn’t take away from the radiance of the episodic poems.

“Mz N” canvasses a variety of topics. Each poem is a terse, insightful examination of something at the forefront of Mz N’s mind during different stages of her life. “Highschool Boyfriend,” for example, deals with adolescent feelings and ideas. Verses pack a punch and wrestle with complexities, subtleties and humor in so few words. In regard to this  “Highschool boyfriend,” Mz N writes that she “was vaguely/ excited by the sex/ thing which wasn’t much happening/ & this was irritating/ but may have kept her just this side/ of launching the chain reaction/ & meltdown which would turn her soul/ into Chernobyl.”

McLane captures the high stakes of youth and novelty of experiencing certain feelings for the first time. There’s purity and urgency in her language that makes the reader smile and laugh.

A Gen-X subculture attitude also is present throughout. Mz N exudes this Morrissey-like air of being well-read, or at least she enjoys dropping names for the appearance of being well-read, thereby tying into the whole 1980s Teddy Boy revival. This is more evident in passages when she’s younger, more existential.

“Triumph of Life” takes its name from a Percy Shelley work. In it Mz N muses, “Some are alive/ easy and slip/ into the world’s skin/ as their own and plums’/ Mz N isn’t one/ or wasn’t/ Then what is life?/ I cried/ cried Shelley.” Mz N appears aware of her referential nature, which makes her existential ennui feel as dramatic as a Romantic poet’s work, but also relatably human.

McLane is subtle at times, too. Plums are a major theme other poems, namely “Contemporary,” a meditation on maintaining relevancy, and “Nothing,” however, they pay homage to William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say.” At the same time as she pays homage, McLane reinvents by tapping into the sensuality and meta qualities of Williams’ poem. Though McLane addresses the reader and toys with the trope of forbidden fruit, she makes directness and cliches refreshing and exciting.

McLane also tackles harsher subjects such as suicide, rape and depression with deftness. “So how are you/ going to commodify/ your brain” are the opening lines to the poem “Monster.” Mz N’s response to the question is that the “mind fails/ & depression acquires a new note/ that will sound instantly in this/ our new concerto.” Suddenly, what appears to be a deadbeat conversation between Mz N and some dude at the bar becomes a rich interaction that mirrors how the mind is thrust into a million different directions in these moments.

The conversation is not just about jobs or job hunting, it’s not even a conversation with this guy. For Mz N, the conversation is with herself. It’s about how not having a niche in the working world, or a want to do anything in particular, affects her already existing depression in a profound way, which McLane describes accurately and beautifully by using the underutilized sense of sound in her poetry.

“Mz N” has all the makings of a modern classic. It makes your brain light up in that nostalgic, hard-hitting way like Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (another book with a bright-colored cover). McLane’s formatting of a poem in episodes and brisk pace tap into the young adult psyche in a way that feels on the same wavelength as Rupi Kaur.

Pick up “Mz N” if you crave food for thought that doubles as a quick beach read. And listen up, poets: Consider publishing your next collection with a pink cover. It stands out on a bookshelf nicely and entices readers to pick up your poems.

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