Published 2021 by Lily Poetry Review Books, 223 Winter St., Whitman, MA 02382
Review by David Ruekberg
To read Paddock, uncrank your expectations for narrative or character or other typical frames of discourse. The book is as much governed by musical or oneiric resonances and minimalist figures as it is by language. Images rise and fade like small waves confronting an embankment, doing their patient work of reshaping constructions we thought of as solid.
I’m the kind of reader who prefers narrative and other sure-handed rhetorical structures to guide me through a reading experience. I’m old-fashioned enough in that way, though there’s a good part of me that likes the turbulence at the edges of traditional territory, and when I’m feeling sane and strong I try to dip my toes across to feel what the water’s like over there. I didn’t make it through Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell until last year, and then wondered what had taken me so long. After one reading, I wasn’t sure what I had experienced by the end, but I knew that it was more throat music and dreamscape than story or argument.
So with MaryLou Buschi’s Paddock.
Paddock is elemental. Seeking a theme or cohesive symbology requires patience. Like a doll house made of straw or a sand painting, any notion of absolute or even approximate interpretation can be swept away by another reading.
There are two girls, or two sides of one girl. And a chorus, an omniscience. A mother, both dead and alive; perhaps a ghost, but not a zombie; tugging at the problem of time, of memory and how it both shapes and distorts time. And dark trees and fog and bones and pits.
Although some reviewers (and the author herself) see a bit of Beckett in places, perhaps in the quick repartee between the girls, their quick call-and-response has more logic and less mania. The banter does share the remote tone and strange landscapes of Waiting for Godot, as well as the indeterminacy of prose works such as Malloy. The allusion is sometimes strained, as a reference in the notes to a line on page 54 (erroneously listed as page 52), “Let us go then,” attribute it to Waiting for Godot. While it does ring loudly of Prufrock, in Godot the line is “Let’s go,” after which the two souls do not move. A few other grammatical or typographical errors mar the surface, but they are minor (perhaps attributable to small-press time-and-personnel constraints) and do little to disturb the deep.
The book is divided into three parts. The first two establish a mythological base. I was going to write “universe,” though rather than an expansive space, the sense is more of a kingdom sketched on the walls of a narrow, lightless closet, wire hangers clicking in the firmament. Part 3 initially makes a turn towards a more autobiographical stance. “Night Swimming” narrates a moment of quite real assault on the subject and the surreal loss of her companion “to the furious oscillation of the bedroom fan” before turning back to the detached voices of the two girls who seem to have been born from the sundering of this character’s identity.
To the question, “How many have there been?” the answer comes, “One. / Many. / None” (57).
The subject of the work is all of its characters: The bicameral Girl 1 and Girl 2. The identity from which they’ve been split. The “little mother” who is both a mother to these and to the narrative consciousness who might herself have been a mother had she not been so traumatized, then abandoned by her “father standing in the drive under / the shadow of the open door,” who “turns to leave her, in the garage / among the boxes of forgotten things” (47). This is the same negligent father of “Night Swimming” who dispassionately “watched the surgeon / examine the sides of the laceration / for a gate of skin to pull and sew shut” (45), a gate which seems to have closed off the subject from her innocence and, of greater consequence, from her identity.
The hell this split identity is thrust into is countered partway through the last section by a moment of equanimity, where Girl 2 instructs the nameless subject, “Open your eyes. / The sunlight is a lucid stain / One morning we met.” Though the image connotes the imperfection of the fallen world, the prevalent message is of acceptance, though it could as well be resignation: “There is nothing to be undone” (51), echoing Godot’s “nothing to be done.” One wonders which state of stasis is worse.
One other kind of character or element is prominent that partially assuages the bleakness of their dilemma: a goat, linked in the notes to Amalthea, the foster-mother of Zeus. This goat (which sometimes becomes several) is tended to by the girls in a paddock, which gives its name to the collection. Thus, the collection itself becomes a place of protection, each poem an attempt to form a tangible body by which a trauma can be sensed and perhaps understood. And yet the highly lyrical form of the poems and the collection itself is evanescent and fragile, suggesting the difficulty of capturing or containing any real understanding.
While one of the girls sometimes scorns this goat as “mangy,” it does remain as a symbol of the object of both the girl(s)’ mothering and their own fraught nurturance, as they “sleep under the bellies of our goats, / when they are goats” (61). Thus, in this lonely, featureless world, even their one solace is ambiguous and impermanent.
The collection speaks to a psychological displacement that is both universal and contemporary: the abandonment of perhaps a literal child, intensified by its context in the modern world, where the elements of meaning—coherence, identity, and belonging—are tenuous at best. Form and content whisper this dilemma in Buschi’s Paddock.