North by Marilyn Irwin
Published by above/ground press, 2017.
he said he wouldn’t speak
to me ever again
if i killed myself
This is the opening page from North, a chapbook by Marilyn Irwin that documents a woman’s unraveling life. Perspective here is obscured by depression, plainspoken in sparse lines that communicate exhaustion but just as evocative through omissions – the disassociated flitting between subjects and settings. After moving from a clinical environment of bed straps and wired windows to a domestic refuge of bedcover stasis, the text hones in on smaller maneuvers, sharing various interactions in a semi-present state.
goes to an interview
she puts bright colours on
and what she thinks is a smile
she doesn’t get the job
she repeats this 17 more times
And in a later stanza:
her mother asks if she is tired
this is my voice now
A lot of creative writing about depression drives to the net: protagonist suffers a steep mental decline followed by an act of self-harm (which, callously speaking, acts as the money shot). This isn’t a totally inaccurate depiction so much as a limited one, often exploited in CliffsNotes form as a plot point in some greater narrative. Inattention to the broader scope of depression – the creeping isolation, fatigue and gradual surrendering of capacities – might rescue readers from "the boring stuff" but it also implies that the author looks in on this condition as otherness.
Quite the opposite, North shapes this woman’s chronic fog like a lived-in experience, embodying mental illness through feelings of exclusion and the banality of repeated tasks. The intentional overuse of the ampersand may entwine each narrative instance for one marathon, run-on sentence but it’s the author’s restraint – the precision in voice and diction – that transmits so much despondency in so few words. Almost every line feels like it could be the last.
Where the title comes into play is “epilogue”, wherein Irwin switches from “she” to the personal “I” and makes an oblique reference halfway through:
a thank you card in the mail
a job application to Toronto
she chose north
It’s the only mention of “she” in “epilogue” and, given the prior couplet, it’s possible that “north” is being used geographically. Or, perhaps the abrupt change in perspective is making a solemn, figurative pronouncement – who’s to say? With the uncertainty of “epilogue”, Irwin throws a wrench into her own well-constructed malaise and alerts readers, who had settled into the woman’s decline, to re-evaluate both voices. No spoilers here – I only have theories – but North is a haunting little chapbook that sharpens "the boring stuff" into vital, heart-churning attempts at salvaging a life.