By Mary Lou Buschi
Red Paint Hill
Reviewed by Veronica Popp
Mary Lou Buschi's Awful Baby is a reminiscence of a lost child's innocent world that never truly existed. The collection is inspired by one of Sylvia Plath's most famous works, "Tulips," which records, in painful verse, the story of Plath's miscarriage and subsequent appendectomy and the resulting divisions she feels from herself and her family. Plath sees the flowers and mocks their implications of growth, while she herself has been reduced, "Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby." Similarly, Buschi's collection is stirred by familial losses and strung together with free flowing stanzas. Yet, instead of Plath's despair, Buschi finds strength in her melancholy.
Emily Dickinson's "The difference between Despair," motivates Buschi's first poem, "When the Wreck Has Been." In Dickinson's case, despair and fear occupy an indistinct middle space. "When the Wreck Has Been" sets the tone for the Buschi's collection, juxtaposing sprawling and typically cliché suburban scenes with images of bereavement and damage. The implications of this are that instead of suburbia being a place of love and fecundity, in Buschi's world, suburbia is a sterile wasteland of certain demise. In her own words, "You thought the sun was wild yellow, insistent on burning the earth. / You closed the curtains, locked the bathroom door. A shot blown back— / inside your mouth, as your mind filled with metallic clouds."
With these two famous muses, Buschi's work begins admirably. "Big Little Same" is especially emotive, as the staccato style and diction implies the division between life and death. Buschi's ruminations are not positive or life-affirming. They are terrifying, borrowing stylistically from an envoi, "I don't need any more friends." It is unclear if the author is addressing her audience or an imagined deceased personage. "Shaping Lost Brothers out of Sticks" provides an excellent meditation on a created brother and the emptiness of imaginary friends when the real ones are gone.
"Clocks" discusses a typical suburban scene of losing a brother's bike. In Buschi's case, the bike is lost because the brother is lost, never to return. The stopped clocks are a keen metaphor for the family's hearts. The last line is touching, "So many broken pieces—delicate parts." The reader questions, are all our hearts delicate parts? Buschi seems to think so.
"Where One Line Fragments the Other Continues" details an archetypal Christmas scene; however, the narrator seeks to join the stars. The light is her brother and the light is herself. Part One of Awful Baby is not a celebration of suburban home movies, but a dedication to the empty seat in a family portrait. It also has the strongest emotional resonance, with its purging of a painful family past on the page. The section ends with "The Book of Coming (Or Going)," about waiting for God, who does not come, and the only thing that the speaker can rely upon is the family dog.
Part Two's "Parade" is a thrilling look into the heart of a young man approaching draft age. Everything, even a happy town parade, becomes "a moment of harried joy." The themes of isolation and division from society are prevalent throughout this short poem. Within this worldview, the armies are the families waving the American flag in support of fallen soldiers, without truly understanding the loss of life. Setting the line "It's a parade" as its own stanza is particularly striking as well as it matches up visually with the later line, "Watch as we ruin your life." Lastly, "Metamorphosis" ends the interlude of shifting styles and times between Parts One and Three.
Finally, Part Three contains a particularly striking scene with the poem titled, "Confession." It is a short poem about an entire Catholic school class receiving detention after playing ding-dong ditch at the nunnery. The poem bridges the connection of the nuns to the outside word and the subsequent severance of it with the speaker's detention who imagines, but fails to see, the nun's without their habits. The line, "sisters who could have been mothers" continues the speaker's search for family within the refrain. The nuns without habits under the "bare moon" indicate that their nakedness and their bodies are fit only for the view of God. Within "Confession" the narrator confesses her sin of ringing the bell at the nunnery, not as an intentional crime, but out of curiosity and wonderment of religious life. She is trapped between two places, "a child fleeing while scapulars / hanging from bedposts batted // like leaves caught in the breeze—."
Buschi continues her exploration of the leaf as a symbol for travel and distance between two places, flying in the breeze without connection. The poem ends in despair, but a hopeful despair. It is clear to readers that Buschi's ambitious work not only exposes the darkness of our past and hearts, but the light, laughter, and promise of a new day.