Brutal Grief – Review of Mary Lou Buschi’s Awful Baby

Awful Baby
Red Paint Hill Publishing, 2015
Reviewed by Leslie Rzeznik

Mary Lou Buschi’s first full-length book of poetry, Awful Baby opens with a start – “When the Wreck Has Been” is a flight of brutal images – a suicide, shared lives remembered, and a letting go that looks like a chasing after.


. . . My hands reach into a bag of cool ash, bone

that my fingers search for and recoil from as once, like a tongue rooting
for a raw nerve at the base of a tooth. It’s your body I toss from my hand

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . .always just beyond my reach

“When the Wreck Has Been” gives a nod to Emily Dickenson, setting a tone of grievous isolation that weaves through the collection. It’s a smart move that was likely as intuitive as it is cunning – Buschi describes her writing in an interview with Swarm ( “I usually have no idea where I am going when I write. I let the poem find its way.”

Split into three parts, Awful Baby follows the speaker through stages of grief. The opening section wanders between memory and fantasy. Many of the poems have a surrealistic feel – indeed, “Persistence of Memory” begins with an ekphrastic response to Salvadore Dali. “Worn-off legs / a watch resting / like a saddle or face”. The poems mostly favor the short line, mimicking the days and weeks after a death (especially an unexpected and violent one) that are as fragmented as the family unit. “If a family is a body / how does the brain / deal with a missing limb?” (“The Mirror Box”) Before the section closes, another amputation.

The middle section utilizes mostly prose poems, mirroring the running narrative that emerges as the fog of initial loss dissipates – anger, longing and (not-quite) regret competing for the speaker’s attention. Many of the poems travel – by train and by car. In “Drive 2”

Robert proposes a miracle. You can no longer feel the wheel you
are holding and the fitted white gloves make stars of your small hands.
There is an inch of glass between you and rest of the world. A drifting
backdrop―wind whispering your name, for several nights, or for several
thousand nights.

There’s a feeling of disembodiment, especially when the speaker reminisces, and like an oily film over a camera lens – you’re never quite sure of the veracity of the memories.

In the final section, the speaker begins to emerge from their oppressive grief to explore their own mortality. Longing for their world to untwist itself, the speaker in “Oh Poem, Hopeful Body” imagines

All the chains inside of your jewelry box untangle,
agree never to commingle with other chains,
so that you can easily choose an intimate object for your neck.
(Maybe the diamond earring you lost will know how to find you,
and will once again light up your face.)

Even the poems in this final section seem to breathe easier. They have shorter lines, more white space, are trying to reach past the ghosts who haunt their pages. The past and present remain entangled, despite the desire for separation.

As a whole, Awful Baby is a haunting mirror to the long-term effects of loss, suicide, survival, loving, and longing. Buschi’s language is enticing and even though you may want to – you just can’t look away.