By Mary Lou Buschi
Red Paint Hill Publishing, 2015
80 Pages, $8.71
Reviewed by Jude Warne
Mary Lou Buschi’s newest book of poems, Awful Baby, is as full of shadow and light as its title suggests it to be. A phrase borrowed from the poem “Tulips” by Sylvia Plath, who was a shadow-and-light lady herself, the title Awful Baby also hints at what the book intends to explore. This is explored: the relationship between an individual’s identity her family’s identity, and where and when and how often these identities intersect. This is also explored: the aforementioned relationship’s evolution and how it corresponds to the individual’s maturation journey.
Though many of the poems in Awful Baby seem to be direct recollections of specific moments in Buschi’s past, she manages to simultaneously inject the moments with reviving shots of insight, christening them anew and thus making them moments that all readers can theoretically claim as their own.
Form-wise, this three-sectioned work is all over the poetic map. The pieces range from paragraphed prose poems to mini-multi-sectioned poems to broken-stanzaed, broken-sentenced poems. Each piece is perfectly suited to its selected form of expression however; Buschi is most certainly a considerate and deliberate writer. Content-wise, this familial and earth-concerned-sky-infused book explores the territory of character-forming locations. These locations are liminal ones that exist as large and malleable memory places in our own pasts and presents. Her most compelling thematic articulations are those of murky adolescence: “Each star above us – a fiery narcissus / as lost and important as we feel…” (“The False Light”). Perhaps most intriguing here is the recurring dialogue that Buschi conducts, dialogue that dissects grief and its effects upon a family unit: “It’s those cats. / I can’t stand them. / They are branches. / Your brother is cat. / Dead like the branches” (“Hallucinations upon Dying”) – and – “A daughter can’t make a mirror box big enough to hold her mother’s grief. / She can only reflect it back to her by showing her the living face” (“The Mirror Box”).
Though these allusions might be direct references to family members’ tragic ends, or just metaphorical translations of familial emotions, the weighty impact of these specific poems is impossible to ignore. Poetry can lose some of its potential for communication if it remains highly specific to its poet – but Buschi chooses to go this route using the concentration of family, an area that every single reader can relate to in some capacity. By writing highly specifically, Buschi achieves ultimate generality, which creates a sense of intimacy for all.
It may be that what is most impressive about this collection, or most impressive about Buschi herself, is the myriad of cultural and artistic references included within it. Some poems are dedicated to Louise Gluck, some poems take their titles from Emily Dickinson’s words, some poems quote Steely Dan lyrics– just to name a few. Such homages indicate Buschi’s artistic awareness that many poets fail to articulate with any sort of clarity – the knowledge that any new work of art is directly and indirectly building upon those that have come before it and is simultaneously creating a work of art that will be built upon by future artists. A work does not stand alone in isolation but is created and shared with audiences at a very specific point in time, a point that is influenced by the past that it has been exposed to. Also, it helps that Buschi happens to have supercool taste in art – frankly it seems that there is an ongoing – and intensely disturbing – deficit of Steely Dan references in modern poetry – and in modern day-to-day existence, for that matter. Awful Baby helps to correct this shortfall, and SD fans everywhere, including this reviewer, truly appreciate it.