Review by Rachel Jamison Webster
Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021
Agency and Chorus in Mary Lou Buschi’s Paddock
Writers remember things that exceed their single lifetime. And sometimes we feel ourselves to be in communication with beings who do not have a body, who are trying to find their own forms through our bodies or words. This is the unspoken premise behind Mary Lou Buschi’s brilliant book, Paddock, which is narrated by two Girls and a Chorus. The poems initiate a simultaneous seeking as the girls set forth to find a mother and Buschi writes into her own procreative desire.
Paddock is patterned with threads of grief—the girls’ grief over their inability to reach their mother, and the poet’s grief over the absence of these daughters that she thought she would have. But the book’s grief is austere, original and, above all, curious. It is not rendered as a lament but as a question, as the girls continually ask when they can come down to live as flesh. Even in poetry, our points-of-view typically privilege the concrete over the abstract, the embodied over the disembodied, and so by upending this perspective and centering the voices of the not-born, Buschi accesses the experience of grief in an entirely new way—a way that is marked by open, existential questions and quizzical observation. This is, to my mind, the book’s greatest achievement—its spaciousness of feeling that completely avoids self-pity and worn-out emotional tropes.
Early on in the book, Buschi alchemizes the relationship with the speakers of her poems. “Gently lower your baby into the ink,” she writes.
A small black shape approaches,
I never planned on capturing you.
The Girls arrive as voices floating in a timeless bardo between lives, in some liminal space before or after death. While their setting is disembodied, however, their observations are textured and elemental, reminding us of the details and precarity of our own earthly existence.
What are we waiting for?
Lures slipping into streams,
burrs stuck to white cotton dresses,
and the light, there is so much of it.
The girls’ effort at life begins with a ritual of imagination, a playing of house with natural elements. “They made a paddock for the goats to graze in,” the Chorus explains:
built parents out of branches,
Served dirt and water as drink
Like us, these girls are trying on realities. They have questions about life and time, and yet their most pressing questions are about their unmet mother, a mortal who remains just out of their reach. This “Dear One” is marked by both beauty and wound. She knows the dangers of being in a female body.
She has a thick rope of skin
where the flesh was sewn back together
after the metal fence scored and pulled
her thigh apart. She was 15, running
away from a man with a rifle,
swimming her way home.
The girls observe the Dear One, the mother, while exploring their own atmospheric world. When they ask when they will exit the not-life to be in life again, they also ask whether coming into body is, indeed, life, or death of the expansive all-seeing available to them in this other world. At one point, Girl 2 says:
I dreamed we were traveling on our path
Where marigolds meet the sky.
The sky narrowed and light grew grey.
Then you were gone.
I think that is death?
“Waking as flesh,” Girl 1 answers her sister, “that is death.”
There is something very bold about writing a book with such and expansive point-of-view, giving its primary agency to the timeless soul-selves that are usually only suggested in poems. The polyphonic quality of the book, as well, questions the very notion of being a single self, in a single body and single lifetime, in a way that is philosophically interesting without ever becoming pedantic or gimmicky.
Buschi’s use of the chorus is ambitious and classical, and yet poignantly relevant to our own time. After all, the #MeToo movement became a real-life chorus of women voicing lament and healing, and several recent books have employed multiple women’s voices to trace intergenerational violence and sing a shared hymn of female resilience. Two of these—Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, and Emily Jungmin Moon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species—are polyphonic books that I return to again and again for their unflinching look at historical trauma and sexual violence. Paddock considers such violence in a slight and sidelong way, framing it in the innocent reportage of children. This technique allows the poems to admit to physical frailty and danger while finding their ultimate anchor in wonder. The poems invite us to consider how the experience of womanhood on earth may appear to the feminine souls who accompany us. And they prod us to ask if these imaginal girls really do want to come into form as females.
Paddock’s conversation between the earthly and the astral reads as spacious, playful, and serious all at the same time. Buschi insists on her poetry’s mystery, tilling new ground for what can be made real in poetry, while always rooting the unsaid in enchanting, earthy details, like “the weed-choked creek” or “a spool of yarn twisted around your fingers.”
The games we play as children, the things we imagine, hold clues to our innermost being, and speak to the archetypal shapes of human experience. Paddock is a book that begins with a ritual pretending, and in the process gets at something existentially true, expanding the bounds of verbalized reality. As Girl 2 says to the mother, “I am sorry you think you are imagining this./ Open your eyes.” Many readers will feel their own eyes opening while reading this book, will experience that widened perspective that happens when the subconscious has been newly traced on the page. I experienced a deep recognition while reading these poems, a relief made more meaningful because Buschi never oversimplifies the book’s experience but protects what cannot be explained. She has determined to make poetry from “thoughts forked down/ below the tilling/ below the possibility of light.” The voices she has channeled live in their own atmosphere, giving us images and textures that are borrowed from the earth but not bound by it.
Rachel Jamison Webster is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Northwestern University and the author a forthcoming book of creative non-fiction (REUNION, Henry Holt 2023) and four books of poetry, including September (NUP/TriQuarterly Press, 2013) and Mary is a River (Kelsay Books, 2018) which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Her essays and poems have appeared in journals such as Tin House, Poetry, Paris Review, and The Southern Review and are anthologized widely.
Mary Lou Buschi earned an MFA in poetry from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and a Master of Science in Urban Education from Mercy College. Her poems have appeared in FIELD, Willow Springs, Indiana Review, Radar, Thrush, Tar River, Cream City, Pank, Rhino, and The Laurel Review, among other journals. Mary Lou is the author of one earlier collection of poems, Awful Baby, and three chapbooks. Buschi has received fellowships from The Santa Fe Writer’s Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and The New York City Teaching Fellows. Currently, she is a special education teacher in the Bronx.
Paddock at Lily Poetry Review Books