Awful Baby is a dark book, but it would be flippant to simply call it sad. There is too much wit and craft here for that. This book is rich with strong images that shift between dreamy impressions and crisp, haunting memories. While these images are often quite specific, they draw the reader in. At times, reading this collection feels voyeuristic, as the speaker lets us in to her world, allowing us to see both her family’s love and their grief; at others, she holds back, allowing emotion to seep through the cracks in a seemingly calm and practical exterior.
Mary Lou Buschi has constructed a portrait of family life and childhood and used the powerful impressions made by both to explore the ways our upbringing and our identity intersect, as well as to explore the effects of loss. The normal becomes grotesque, both through the memories of pain experienced by the speaker’s family—“To put up a tree means the family is well, happy”—and through the surreal instructional poems such as “Today’s Objective,” “Purple Math,” and “Rounding.” Another such poem, “Beauty School,” shifts between practical advice (“Start at the temple, knead the skin with your index and middle fingers in a cross skating motion”) and eerie suggestions (“You will need to recant each bone before cutting her cuticles”). Whether she is examining our social rituals or showing us how our interpersonal memories form our sense of family (Tell me again about the time you shook me awake to make sure I was still breathing”, from “I hate and I love”), Buschi manages to both evoke emotion and offer psychological insight.
In “Mirror Box,” Buschi asks, “If a family is a body/how does the brain/deal with a missing limb?” This collection is a love letter and a study of how the parts of a family grow apart and together, and how our memories persist as we do, living with us whether we like it or not.