Review: songs on car stereos

I am beyond excited to be reviewing songs on car stereos by Michael Mahin today for two reasons. One, it’s been a long ass time since I last read any poetry, and I miss it so much! It’s been several months since my sister last hurled one of Amanda Lovelace’s books at me, and though I’ll probably read her newest release soon, I am over the moon for songs on car stereos because I know Michael! One of my best friends, Jen, is our mutual friend, and I was just so damn hyped when Michael announced that he would be releasing a book of poetry through his publishing press, Pumpkin Boy Press. And, ICYMI, I recently interviewed Michael! We chatted on Halloween about his new release and all the good things coming up. songs on car stereos is available here to order, and you’ve got to snag a copy.

the way that songs
on car stereos may have saved my life

title track, page 6

blue songs

Oh, I love this. Michael recently shared a playlist that he curated to listen to while reading, and he’s provided some songs at the introduction of each section, as well. I’ve long loved when books have a little bit of multimedia in them, and this is such an excellent way to really set the mood for your words.

Gosh, I knew this was going to be a little painful, but Michael has just reached straight through my ribs to wind his fingers tight around my heart. There is so much longing in this section, so much bitter nostalgia because if only we loved our lives as we were currently living them, then maybe we wouldn’t look back on days that were good and wish we had them now when days might be bad. Because when your whole life is overturned, and everything you thought you knew is suddenly different, it’s only natural to look back and wish that those days when you might have been a little naïve, but definitely happy, are ones that you wish you could have now. We do this even when our lives are good now, but the pain that Michael packs into these first few poems as he pulls apart what it’s like to be living with that nostalgia as a sort of ghost is just exceptional.

a sort of half-life:
spent wishing back a world
i never really wanted
when i had it

nostalgia, page 5

I’ve got to talk about “2012”, though, because damn.

This is it. This is high school and college and new adulthood and not understanding anything and trying to figure out how to be alone and looking for friends purely for companionship because actually having them is exhausting sometimes. This is something that every single person in the world can identify with, regardless of whether or not they went through that hellish transition from high school to college, because all of us have walked aimlessly through a street at night, headphones in and music leading our feet, because to return home to where all your thoughts lived was worse than to stay outside in the cold. That to walk and walk and walk, feet frozen and mind completely blank, was better than to be alone in a crowded room and wonder why you couldn’t talk to anyone–that’s such a universal experience, and wow, Michael has just taken that big, awful thing and neatly broken it into lines that remind me of a playlist I might have listened to while huddled under a tree in the dark, cold fingers shoved in my pockets, and praying that no one would come looking for me so I wouldn’t have to go back to my college dorm room and everything it held inside it that I didn’t want to look at.

The questions that this section ask are ones that I’m going to be thinking about for a long damn time. I’ve never experienced something quite as life-altering as cancer like Michael has, and I’ll never be able to understand the very real mortality of this question:

if all of it was over // all-of-a-sudden
the question // of what could you carry

what would you take, page 29

But it’s going to sit with me for a while. I’m going to be going about my day, food shopping at Whole Foods and trying to figure out how many pounds is enough for eight people to eat French onion soup, and these lines are going to unfold in my mind and just totally unmoor me for a bit. The question of what could you carry is just–gosh, even the decision to make that word could rather than would or should. What could you carry if your life was ending? Not would or should because those allow for a little bit of hemming and hawing and taking your time and actually making some decisions, but what could you carry?

My heart just breaks for the person that has to ask themselves this, of being forced to quantify your life into a question like this, of what could you carry if the end was near because the answer is all of it, right? You want all of it, every single damn second, because you deserve a life that goes on and on, one that is bright sometimes and terrible other times because all of it is worth remembering and holding onto.

Well, damn, Michael’s made me cry, I’m going to take a small break and then come back to this.

scar songs

The stylistic difference from blue songs to scar songs is incredible, and what felt like poetry before is almost like a battle now. It feels like someone trying to shout, but not actually making any noise, and knowing that they’re not being heard, but not knowing how to do anything more than keep trying to shout. And there’s these moments–

like i might mean
a different story.
but i have my own.

they always seem to forget.

cardigan, page 45

–almost of self awareness, in a way, but also of self acceptance and the endless war for self worth. Because we so often see ourselves in others while forgetting that people are doing the same in return, so then we’re never actually being seen or seeing, and it’s this vicious cycle that Michael’s managed to put so specifically into words in a way that it just knocks me back a bit, and I have to take a beat before I can carry on.

And I’ve got to take a moment to just shout out river because I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t freak out just a little over the shape of the poem.

Boy oh boy, but do I love stylistic poems like this. I mean, look at it! It’s a poem that takes place on a river shaped like a river. This is a small thing, I know, but it honestly makes me flail a little. I just love how poets use the white space on a page, how it’s not just big blocks of text like it is in a book. The formatting of a poem is right on par with the poem itself for me. I love to watch the way language is played with, the way words sprawl across a page in a way they don’t in prose, the way that they can mean so much more when they’re utilized just a little differently. I keep thinking of how Michael increased the font when he used the word large in one poem and stretched out the spaces between the word long in another, and it’s such a simple stylistic move, but it ends up being so powerful. The true mark of a fantastic poet, I think, it not just how their words move you, but how the white space around those words hits you, too.

And wow, but things i never said? I definitely picked a favorite in the first section without realizing it–duh, of course it was 2012–and things i never said is it for scar songs. That was like a wallop to the heart, and it was wonderful. Although, I won’t lie, sunflower hit me in a different way, in a way that’ll sucker punch anyone that’s fallen out of love with a friend because they’re somehow worse than break-ups, and it feels like death no matter what, but you always keep “i wish you well almost every day” even if it hurts.

love songs

I’ve neglected to mention it yet, but Michael’s included illustrations in the book, done by Skye Murie, and they are, of course, always at exactly the right moment and up the ante of the poem in the same way that Michael’s usage of white space does. And it is another usage of white space, something beyond just words, something that takes the poem is almost cracks it open so that its innards spill out in ways that we’re not expecting as a reader. Of course there’s a boy in the water here, or a burning house there. It works so well, and it was such a lovely way to expand the story of these poems even more.

i made a silent wish in witch city.
to trust: that one day i will know
a home in myself, in a city i love.

song for salem, page 78

I mean, we all know how I feel about Salem. It is magic given life. It’s a clear night and a full moon, walking down the Wharf while the stars shimmer off the ocean, and the music of people all around you, weird and wild and wonderful. It’s a city that keeps pulling me back, and this poem. This is why.

There’s a lot of Massachusetts in this book, actually, and I love it all dearly. Walden Pond and and Boston and the Cape–there’s such subtle quintessential New England sprinkled throughout the gorgeous roadmap of Michael’s young adulthood, and it just fills me up with warmth. I love New England so much, and I’ll never leave Massachusetts because there is just something about it, no matter how much I say New Hampshire is my favorite state, and I will always love a place that has somewhere like Salem.

It’s fitting that it would be in the last section, as the story is slowly coming to a close, that I would finally realize the map of these different sections. The first one, blue songs, is very much a beginning. It’s uncertain and scary. It’s spent almost half looking over one’s shoulder, wishing for the days that were while simultaneously willing the days that are to hurry on past. It’s a crash course toward the middle, scar songs, which is angry and volatile and unforgiving. It is the fury that we carry inside for years and years until it finally spills over in something that sounds like hatred, but is really terror. Which means, of course, that the final section, love songs, is the slow kindling of hope when that terror begins to even out, when we start to realize that oh, life might be worth living after all if only I’m given the chance to live it, not because I have been gifted this life, but because I’ve decided to take it for my own. It is an end without quite being an end because there is so much more still to come.

Of the whole book, I think the dream of a taxi is my favorite poem, and it feels like the poem of the book. Like, this is it, this is the whole culmination of all that’s come before, all that’s happening now, and all that may come ahead. I almost quoted it here, but I think this is one that you should experience all on your own for the first time.

As I come to the end, I am in awe of the work that Michael has done, and I know that these are words that I’ll read again and pass on to all of my friends. I hope that you, too, will read these and discover what a truly magnificent poet Michael Mahin is.

“songs on car stereos” is out now via Amazon!

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