Review: Mike Jurkovic’s AmericanMental
by Maggie Finch
The poetic language found in AmericanMental by Mike Jurkovic (Luchador Press, 2020) can best be described as urgent. Within his poetry, Jurkovic describes a man who wants his space to grow and be more than it is—enough to be sincerely pissed off about it. Enough to desire that you become pissed off about the state of things, too. AmericanMental was manifested by a poet who can’t help but notice negative changes in “shit-lorn”—the small-town focus of this collection—or the negative shifts in Western culture as a whole. All of this noticing might be to the detriment of the poet, who seems to be swinging wildly back and forth between pessimism and optimism. Perhaps, he’s not quite sure where to land. Consequently, readers become determined to figure it out alongside Jurkovic.
The opening piece of AmericanMental describes a place Jurkovic calls shit-lorn, which seems to be stand-in for just about any average town in America. It’s my hometown and yours. Only the people of shit-lorn are now “zombies” and folks who’ve been “hoodwinked.” Jurkovic asks an audience-facing question: “What do you think that is? / How have we failed / or have we?” From the beginning of this collection, Jurkovic is setting up a narrator that is anxious about the sleepiness of American culture and paranoid that the world might be falling apart. It seems he has collected enough evidence to determine everything is going to shit. But desperate to be an optimist, Jurkovic still has enough curiosity to question his own paranoia. Can America be saved after all? What would need to happen to create positive change?
With a gritty voice that can fairly be described as Bukowski-esque, Jurkovic explores timely issues that have been pervading the U.S. for years: homelessness, socio-economic inequity, the inability to pay for medications needed to stay alive, climate change, what humans will leave behind post-apocalypse, corrupt politics, and an “orange king” who wages “war against science.” Worse yet, the citizens of shit-lorn, hang onto their blindness, “our lack of clairvoyance” that “defines us,” with an epic grip. Jurkovic, hard as he may fight it, is not exempt from the temptation to feel the bliss of ignorance either: “but it’s futile. all you can hope for / is immunity. then feign ignorance / like all the rest.” But the poet’s observant prowess is too strong to allow him to turn into a zombie, too. Jurkovic seems to know that silence and willful ignorance is another nail in the collective coffin, so he labors on.
The folks of shit-lorn are waiting to be saved by an unseen force instead of actively fixing systemic issues, and Jurkovic has had enough. The hard alliteration sprinkled throughout this collection, enough to spray spit clear across the metaphorical room, wraps its hands around your neck and asks you to look around, to see Jurkovic’s raison du jour for utter panic. At times, Jurkovic uses repetition to ensure you’ve let his message sink in or pull the reader out of their natural space of self-centeredness: “Havoc ensnares. Innocents die. / Did you hear that? Innocents die.” It’s not always an easy message to take in, but the heaviness of his commentary is not without significance. Admittedly, the poet’s version of the truth is bitter to swallow at times. Awareness can feel that way sometimes. You are being asked to shoot it like whiskey and figure out how we are to move forward as a society. Jurkovic needs you to understand that no one is exempt from these collective burdens.
AmericanMental is Jurkovic’s version of passing down wisdom, the things you learn when you “live long enough.” It’s a call to action and a serious critique of American culture. Despite the bitter rise to the apex of this collection, it ends on a somewhat hopeful note. Even if shit-lorn is truly shit and Jurkovic wishes we would all open our eyes already, it is still our home, where our Main Streets, friends, and lovers reside. Deeply below all of Jurkovic’s bitterness and paranoia, there is a sense that maybe all this is collection was borne from love and a desire to save all of us dwellers of shit-lorn.
Maggie Finch is a writer from Wisconsin. She received a Master’s in English from NMU. When not writing, Maggie enjoys reading, making up songs for her cat, obsessively watching Gilmore Girls, and drinking coffee. She was the recipient of a Best of the Net nomination in 2020. More of her words are found in Third Street Writers’ Beach Reads: Paradise, Gravitas, Mistake House, Mineral Lit Mag, and Hobart.