April 2024


Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce



Loneliness, alienation, family breakage, loss, death: All these are classic themes of poetry. In Mary Lou Buschi’s Blue Physics, however, they are not tropes nor are they suggested through metaphor, but instead are directly narrated, revealed as the stuff of the poet’s actual life. This book is a clear -eyed, honest, unsparing examination of the impact of tragic and even catastrophic events on a family and its individual members. And yet, the power and vividness of the language, the narrative verve, and the very honesty itself leave the reader feeling she has passed though a refining fire, that the poet has achieved a kind of freedom from the past, hard won but without repression or denial.

The book begins with a very short poem that subtly hints at the books’ larger theme and the poet’s procedure. Quoted in full:


The way light bends—

Blood through skin

A circle within

a lake—

How it moves.”

Suggested here is the way the passage of time changes memory, blurs some things and clarifies others, how memory is a moving target.

Unexpectedly what follows is not another poem but instead a facsimile of a letter from the poet’s missing brother to an unknown though named woman. The letter will recur throughout the collection, subjected to erasure and sometimes rearrangement and editing. For example:

“Dear Lucy,

[redacted] confused

[redacted] though hell and back

[redacted] I couldn’t begin

to [redacted] believe

[redacted] friends [redacted] Nov.-Jan

[redacted] I hope

please call me [redacted] I will fill you in!



(“Coda.” Here  and elsewhere[redacted] stands in for the poet’s insertion of erasures.)

This poem begins by introducing one of the collection’s recurrent motifs, family dysfunction, in this case a birthday celebration gone awry:

“My family pretending to be normal—

I’ve always hated my birthday.

My father cooking chicken on the grill

until it was black, yet raw in the middle

after my brother, John disappeared

for the first time….

I was hoping for a little bit

of joy, a Carvel cake

soft enough to cut, allowing its chocolate

crunchy bits to spill from the center.”

The section quoted above follows, then the poem returns to the party.

“There were no gifts, not even music.

Just the sound of the town parade,

trumpets, distant sirens, pounding drums

beating out some idea of American triumph.”

The irony of the fourth line is heartbreaking.

Then follows another glimpse of the brother’s letter, this time containing both a breaking of the code and pleas for further breaking.

“Dear Lucy (Rose, My Love),  [strikethrough in the original]

Through hell, I’ve been

This code—

Please break it.”

Then another glimpse of the sad birthday party:

“I looked back at them, my father on the cracked

concrete step flipping terrible chicken….

even the dog with her dry nose between her paws.”

The next section is an even more cryptic version of the letter.


I couldn’t begin to explain.

I hope to see you again [redacted] on the other side.”

And finally a summing up:

“A tableau of a family,

how wrong

to think a family was like a body,

a central heart,

it’s really a tree, splitting

from the weight of all that living.”

I have devoted such close attention to this poem because it embodies several of the book’s themes and exemplifies both the poet’s unsparing
gaze, in addition to the power of her language and precision of the poems’ imagery.

Another element winding its way through the book is the poet’s girlhood in Catholic school, which brings its own alienation and loneliness.

“Our 4th grade teacher was not a nun.

She wore smart slacks, sweater sets,

kept her coal hair short, made us stand

at her desk, recite the difference between

there, they’re, and their….

She never smiled.”


Rivalry and hierarchy and small cruelties in this setting are described in “Kiss Kill,” along with a hint of budding sexual awareness:

“While sitting on school’s fire escape flipping sliced onions

off my sandwich, I thought about how I would answer

Kiss/Kill. Peg started it…..

None of us thought about gender, sexual

orientation, so when Peg told me to choose

someone I had to kiss and someone I had to kill,

I looked into the distance before taking another bite

of my sandwich….

Peg’s lips were full and slick. I imagined how soft they’d feel….

I felt Peg

staring me down. It’s late, I said. On her way down

the fire escape, Peg punched me hard in the back.

To kiss is a touch. To kill is the death of that touch.”

These and other topics appear throughout the book, sometimes separately, sometime intertwined. We learn, shockingly, of the John’s death in a horrific act of violence.

One does find a few lighter notes, touches of happiness among the pain.

“I’ve Been Trying to Pay Attention”

The way I did when I’d ride in the back

of my father’s car while he drove through

Brooklyn, light flipping through the slats

in the train track overpass….

I’d squint my eyes and what passed before

me was color-woven, undulating like a flag….

Open your mouth wide when you bite the sun,

you’ll want to feed it yolk,

then radiate—radiate—radiate.”

Following this poem, “My Husband Holds Up a Pair of Mismatched Socks” brings us into the present where we discover the poet has survived into adulthood, been able to marry and presumably sustain the partnership and has even salvaged some humor and hope, however fragile.

“I tell him not to worry, eventually they will

find their match.

Eventually this wind will give way to silence

and what’s more

the fox is back and she is alone.

The rooster has survived the winter—”

While many of the poems depict dark events, broken and lost relationships, even violence, the effect is far from grim or oppressive. The very survival and resilience of the poet, the fact that she has come through and left this record, is marvelous. The language carries hope, even when the subject is unhappy or painful. There is so much more here that a short review can encompass. Acquire your own copy; it might be the best poetry purchase you make this year.

I reached out to Mary Lou to learn more and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions.

How did this book come about? It has a strong thematic unity. Did you plan it based on its themes, or did it come together as you accumulated poems?

I am so glad you feel Blue Physics has strong thematic unity. I’m slow to see where I am going when I write poems. At some point, I start to look at what I have and begin to understand the themes, images, and questions being raised. However, it was my editor, Eileen Cleary, who asked me to meet with her because she sensed I was holding back, and she was right. After our conversation, the structure of the manuscript became clear and then I had to write “hinge” poems that would connect the overarching theme of disappearance. This experience was very different from my last book, Paddock that was more of a project-based book, as it was a play in poems. Blue Physics really began as a mixed tape with no real arc. I think it took me about two or three weeks to wrestle with some difficult material to feel like I could send it to print.

Near the beginning of the book appears a handwritten letter from your brother. Why did you decide to include it rather than simply quote it in some of the poems? And how did it occur to you to subject it to erasure throughout the book?

I was so delighted that Eileen allowed me to include the first letter from my brother. Seeing his handwriting and the year it was written feels very special to me. I was able to bring him along, give him a voice. That letter was written in code. We believe he was trying to reach his then wife. He was in hiding. That was the only correspondence we had with him the first time he disappeared. The erasures came to me as a necessity for how I read the letter and how it evolved in meaning over time. The final, “Dear Lucy” poem is a reimaging of what he would say now. I have written about his death in other poems, especially in my first book, Awful Baby. The difference is that the poems in Awful Baby are imagined conversations between us after he is gone.

One of the recurrent elements in the collection concerns the loss by disappearance and deaths of two of the speaker’s brothers. Were these occurrences at the roots of the creation of this book?

I think that there are some elements of childhood that stay with you forever and even when I am writing about a baby shower and strange cake, the final line circles back to my mother at John’s funeral, “The baby still whole and sleeping there.”  I suppose these moments become a sort of haunting that never goes away. My middle brother was also haunted by John, his entire life. He died very suddenly from cancer. It was shocking as I thought he would be around to annoy me forever. However, neither of those deaths occurred to me as the root for the creation of the book. Unless I am working a project-based book like my second collection, I am just writing and open to whatever arrives. In fact, the first draft of Blue Physics was titled In Case of Emergency. The poems were hybrid pieces and much more about the political state of the country and the pandemic. About 20 poems were taken out over time and the title changed as way to make the collection cohesive.

You live in Nyack, NY, the birthplace of Edward Hopper. Is this a happy coincidence, or has Hopper been an influence or inspiration for you?

The answer is both. It is a happy coincidence that I live near the house where Hopper grew up that is now a museum and event space, but Hopper was always an influence on my writing. His color palette and use of light and dark speaks directly to the psychological tone in my poems. In fact, I would like to dig deeper into exploring his work as an inspiration for the next round of poems.

You are a special education teacher. Does this work affect your writing?

My students provide endless inspiration for me. At least 3 poems in Blue Physics are influenced by teaching, “The Day Room,” “Union of Heaven, and Earth,” and “A Student Certain I know Nothing Screams, You Need Jesus.” I hated high school and somehow, I am back and I have 5 years more before my release. LOL. This time it is different. I think I am a better teacher because I hated high school. I know how to explain subjects I never understood. I empathize with issues that hurt my students, issues that may seem trivial to adults. Also, my students are on the spectrum so the way many of them communicate is refreshing. They are honest, free of some of the social norms that keep us couching difficult topics.  They are fully themselves.

And finally, what are you working on now? Can we expect another book soon?

Soon? No. At least 3 years away. I have poems swimming around in my “Loose Poems” folder, but I have no idea if any of them are on the path to a manuscript. I am shocked with how quickly people are writing and publishing books these days. I am not that fast. I can’t believe I was able to get Blue Physics out so quickly after Paddock and even that was 3 years ago. But this is the exciting time. I get to promote the book I made and support the press, Lily Poetry Review Books, that has held me up while I imagine what’s next. The delicious unknown of what will take shape.

Learn more about Mary Lou Buschi and order the book here:


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Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of five books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA.
More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives.

©2024 Gregory Luce
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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