The Quilliad Reviews: Awful Baby by Mary Lou Buschi

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You can find Awful Baby at http://www.redpainthill.com/#!mary-lou-buschi/skyvj. Image credit Red Paint Hill Press

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.

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The Quilliad reviews Adam Abbas’s A State, A Statue, A Statute

ASASAS reviewThe Quilliad continues to review small press books, and today’s offering is Adam Abbas’s A State, A Statue, A Statute, published by Steel Bananas. A mix of formal poetry and digressions into highly rhythmic prose poems, Abbas’s book is a complex—sometimes difficult—and technically impressive read that sometimes becomes too opaque for comprehension but retains an elegance of form throughout.

Part I is composed of sestinas, villanelles, and prose poems. The sestinas and villanelles are clearly constructed with care—the rhymes emerge naturally, and the author can turn an eloquent phrase. Many of these pieces contain examinations of memory and moments of poignant melancholy, unfortunately sometimes obscured by the obscurity of much of the text. That said, Abbas clearly knows his craft.

My feelings about the prose poems are similar. Allusions and (pop) culture references abound, both hinting at themes and bewildering in their variety. Odd juxtapositions resist interpretation—a “Berber Gerber baby”, dryads, “the Hymn of the Hyena’s Hymen”, and the cross-dressing “Chris Christ [ . . . ] with his Stockholm Syndrome” all jostle for space within “Supper as the Linoleum Curls”. These poems are held together with relentless rhyme and a rhythm that both exhilarates and leaves the reader feeling a little rushed. Each sentence is stretched beyond its grammatical limits, creating a sense of urgency that makes events and characters blur. Caught up in the flow of words, it’s hard to pause long enough to grasp what’s happening, and even closer examination can leave the reader none the wiser. In some ways, it’s like reading T.S. Eliot again, with that sense of having missed the point because the references are too diverse to follow while conceding that everything must somehow fit together. As a fellow reviewer has pointed out, these poems are reminiscent of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and in the same way that one can simultaneously appreciate the linguistic acrobatics of Bök’s writing and be frustrated by the distance between the words and a comprehensible meaning, I found myself admitting Abbas’s talent while wishing I could find something just a little more solid to hold onto in these poems. I’m still unsure as to whether all the sound and fury signifies anything.

As the collection continues, however, the reading gets easier. Part two is a bit of a breather, with poems that clearly state their focus if not their purpose. The section’s opening poem about the writer’s place in the world and a piece on family ground the collection in a more recognizable voice. “Poem for Sammy Yatim” brings the political undertones of the collection to the forefront, finally voicing the discontent that whispers throughout the beginning of the collection. Part three returns to formal constraints, opening with a ghazal that lets us further into the speaker’s psyche and continues the theme of memory and loss. While still challenging, the pieces in this section are rendered more accessible by their form rather than less, as sequences of couplets give the reader time to absorb each line. Echoes of the playful strangeness of the earlier prose poems are tempered by a more meditative, less frenzied rhythm. The beginning of “Bailey”, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, is dark and quirky, showing off Abbas’s taste for the bizarre while supplying the narrative so yearned for and denied in the prose poems: “The family went outside as it snowed softly/And the drunken father sang an ode softly/For their pet spadefoot toad who died of wanderlust/Whose gorgeous eyes always glowed softly”.

In the final section, several pages of haikus and haiku-like stanzas form a fragmentary and evocative poem. While the earlier prose poems suggest but do not deliver a coherent narrative, the haiku’s brevity encourages contemplation, while extra spaces between stanzas seem to reassure: there will be gaps in your knowledge, and that is simply part of the experience.

While the opening section of A State, A Statue, A Statute can be daunting to approach, persistent readers will be rewarded. I’d recommend this book specifically to those who appreciate formal poetry and the merits of playing with constraints.

If you have a book of poetry or prose published by a small press that you’d like us to review, please contact us at thequilliad@gmail.com to discuss the possibility.

-Sarah

Book Review: Mavor’s Bones by Rolli

MB front coverRolli’s family saga is less a novel than a series of vignettes, creating a portrait of a family as decrepit as their abode. The lines that make up Mavor’s Bones linger in a space between sincerity and satire, drenching the family’s tragedy with a generous helping of dark comedy. The characters often speak with an authority they do not have, making grand statements to a house and household that care little for their pronouncements. The narrator weaves his or her disembodied voice into the story, taking on the grandiose tone of the book’s inhabitants. The poems are supplemented with curious illustrations, abstracted figures and sketched portraits adding to the absurd.

At times, the fragmentation of the poems—the short, disjointed lines, frequent indents, and wide spaces between words—seems to complement the ramshackle state of the house and its inhabitants; at others, it feels as if the author is a little too entangled in the poeticness of his writing. The deliberate cleverness of the lines has a similar hit-or-miss quality. Sometimes this appears deliberate, as in “The Old Philosopher I”; here, the language evokes a somewhat pompous character to humorous effect: “the bohemian/sauntering out the tomb/There was too little elbow-room.” The book seems self-aware at times like these, mocking its characters’ solemnity and self-regard. Other lines try too hard to impress, but there is always some redemption further along. “Recluse (The Duke)” has a witty beginning that succinctly summarizes much of the Duke’s gloomy character and includes some surprising turns of phrase:

Recluse
they’ve named me
chilled      to wine
.               society
If
I cupboard me
what man grasps hand-
les
passes drink?

I found that the collection improved significantly when I started reading sections aloud. I was then able to better appreciate how natural the rhymes feel and the rolling cadence of the poems. This strengthened my belief that the fragmentation does more in places to hinder than help. Similarly, the poems with a clear voice, where the speaker is identified as a specific family member, often ring truer than those with an unidentified speaker.

Overall, there is much to like in Mavor’s Bones. There is a hint of Mervyn Peake in the character descriptions and more than a little Lewis Carroll in the madness of it all. Read it if you like family sagas, gothic atmosphere, characters’ sometimes self-aware pontificating, stories in verse, multiple voices, and a little bit of nonsense thrown in for good measure.

-Sarah