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.

Baltic Bič : Leslie Rzeznik

Leslie Rzeznik

Leslie Rzeznik is a graduate of the University of Michigan. She is a Web and Instructional Systems Designer by day, and at night can be found poring over poems or wildcrafting herbs in the shade of a full moon. Her poems have appeared in Bear River Review and Shades of Memory Loss anthology. (note: Bičiutė is a Lithuanian word for BFF, and Bič is pronounced “bitch.”)

Who is your favorite female identifying written character and why?

She’s not literary in a traditional sense, but my first instinct was Maude Findlay, the outspoken feminist played by Bea Arthur who first appeared on the horribly racist All in the Family, then got her own spin-off and whose character was essentially reincarnated in Dorothy Zbornak on Golden Girls.

Characters like Maude/Dorothy (and MTM and Rhoda) were pivotal in forming my identity as a woman. These were women who bucked the norm, who wore pants suits to work (gasp!), supported their (unmarried) selves quite comfortably thankyouverymuch, and basked in their identities independent of their families.

I’m a child of the sixties and seventies. Growing up, I was always butting my head up against all of the things I couldn’t do because I was a girl (become an altar boy, play Little League, be an astronaut). When I was very young, we were still required to wear dresses to school (and the women to work), and wear hats and gloves to church. Title IX would come along a bit later and open athletic doors for me. Having these strong female role models significantly changed the trajectory of my choices as an adult, and enabled me to find the strength behind my voice and the courage to use it.

What literary work by a female identifying writer had the most effect on you as a writer and/or person?

As a young poet, I would have to say Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us. Hers was the only contemporary poetry by a woman I can remember studying in my first-time-around-undergrad. We studied Plath, Barrett-Browning, and Dickinson of course, but Forche’s work was a force set apart from even those giants. Dickinson’s “poetry of witness” was to me spare and a bit antiseptic compared to, for instance, these lines from “The Colonel”:

. . . The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

No woman poet I’d read had spoken so painfully intimate about the carnage of war, or anything unpleasant for that matter. Certainly not Dickinson. Forche’s work chilled me to the bone, and had I been a more mature writer, I may have fought to become a serious poet sooner than after 50.
In my recent incarnation as an undergrad (whence I finally finished my degree), I would have to say many, many women poets have inspired me. I was fortunate to be at the University of Michigan and to have worked with some poetic greats like Linda Gregerson and Laura Kasischke. There were also many others I have met in my involvement with the literary community there.

How did your work in Alyss come about?

I have three pieces in Alyss. There were two muses (or perhaps three) for “The Heart of Alice Faye.” My mother had died recently, and she had donated her body to the University of Michigan Medical School. I was fascinated with what her organs may have looked like, especially her heart. I saw her heart, triple the normal size, on an xray a few months before she died (this was the basis for the weight of Alice Faye’s heart). I appear in the poem, as well as someone in my life who was being particularly unpleasant to me. The poem was actually written as an assignment in a comedic poetry class and was supposed to be in the fashion of Dorothy Parker, one reason I chose the tercet. However, I can’t see much of a resemblance to Parker in the finished product.

Tracing the Outlines of Ghosts” was inspired by my memories of the Lithuanian countryside and sharing a straw-stuffed bed with a friend. I don’t know that the poem quite embodies the rustic atmosphere or the sanctity of place I felt in those days. I struggled with this one a lot, and my mentor A. Van Jordan gave me some feedback that pushed it toward the finish line.

the fly claims no vertigo sitting on the sill” began with a vivid memory of a tickle game my Polish grandmother used to play with us. I was also dealing with depression, which has its own lazy inertia for me. It started as a kick in my own ass, but then turned into something consumable by others. As I sunk into the particulars of spider silk and prey behavior, I was (as usual with my research) fascinated. I still have a fly series on my poetic bucket list.

What has been your greatest writing life moment so far?

Oh gosh. That’s a tough one. I supposed it’s any time I read to an appreciative audience. The last time I read was at an art gallery, and one of the artists gifted me a piece of her work. That was pretty thrilling!

What is your favorite piece by another writer from Issue One and why?

If I may pick two for very different reasons – Mandy L. Rose’s “Five” touched me the deepest. It is heartbreaking, yet hopeful for breaking the cycle of abuse.

But Meg Matich’s “Cellar Violin” was haunting and mysterious. That is the poetry I love best – the lines that stop short of telling exactly what they are. Perhaps there is a deeper meaning I haven’t yet discovered – an allusion to something that I will stumble upon later. I like that. (note: Meg’s interview was enlightening in this way!)

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been a bit lax about writing after recently returning to (non-literary) work full-time. I am looking to round out a collection of poems I have that I am trying to run into the ground. Do you ever have a muse who sticks around too long, or one that keeps popping up when you think you’ve seen the last of her? Well, I have a feeling I’ll never shake my family ghosts, but at least I can give printed voice to those who’ve already spoken to or through me. I look forward to flooding the Interwebs with submissions, which I’ve never done, as well as entering some chapbook contests. Bring on the rejections!

Who/what is your favorite Alice/Alyss?

The Alice I’m most enamored of right now is Alice Liddell, the little muse for Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, I wrote an ekphrastic poem after Carroll’s photo of her as The Beggar Maid, and would love to write a series, but need to decide if it will be all Carroll’s work, or others’ art as my inspiration.

I have to say that it’s been an honor being one of the inaugural poets for Alyss! I’m looking forward to many more terrific issues.