Callista Buchen’s debut prose poetry collection LOOK LOOK LOOK, reviewed by Christen Kauffman

Look at the mother—the way her body is a house, a machine, a haven, a raw collection of love and devastation in the wake of her children’s entrance into the world. Look at how her body becomes foreign, becomes open wound, becomes blood memory, is reborn at the bottom of the sea. Look at how the mother buries her grief, leaves her eyes in a glass by the bed, reconstructs and rebuilds the fragments of a torn and broken heart.

In this stunning and honest collection, Callista Buchen interrogates motherhood, refusing to shy away from the unspoken world of bodies wrecked in the act of giving birth and the subsequent change in a woman’s mental and physical experience. There’s an urgency in the way Buchen situates the reader in a mother’s immediate fear and overwhelming love, letting herself move from birth to trauma to the ways in which motherhood consumes. Buchen breaks her collection into five parts that represent a chronological build from the first moments of motherhood to multiple pregnancies and births. Writing each piece in a prose/hybrid form offers Buchen the opportunity to pour into unbroken lines, detailing the evolution of a mother in surprising and gut-wrenching ways. Together, these flash prose poems create fractured scenes, suspended reactions, and painfully sharp analogies that work to mimic memory, giving the reader an intimate window into the evolution of motherhood.

The first birth in the collection considers how birth alters the way a woman perceives her body and how the birth experience can leave emptiness in place of the prenatal ties. In “Piece of Rough” Buchen writes “The mother’s body pushes toward some other shape, squeezing the loss, diamond-like, until the emptiness can be cut.” It is through this push that the body loses its position as home, and the sadness that can come with this first sense of emptiness is one Buchen fiercely addresses. With the same unapologetic directness, Buchen points the lens to the change a woman feels for her body in “Regeneration” when she writes “Pink-purple mouths at their breasts. The latch, the drain. What you keep alive. They could recite, your body is not your own, but everyone already knows.” The open way Buchen reveals her struggle with her body’s new purpose and the way motherhood is both all-encompassing fear and love is breathtaking, drawing the reader into these moments with her to hold her new baby and search for ways to redefine the self.

Woven between two birth stories is the revelation of loss and how miscarriage devastates and wraps the mother in layers of grief. In “Loss,” Buchen bravely sits in the “I” of the piece, revealing, “I am grief. I am double and half. I carry the dead body, which is better than no body. I can be a coffin.” In this moment, Buchen tells the reader how easy it is to lose. How easy it is to become “hollow” and what that hollowness looks like in graphic, tangible images. Buchen’s command of compressed prose creates a sense of loss even within the line. Only necessary words are given life on the page. Short staccato sentences punctuate a build of emptiness that permeates the white space.

One of the most effective stylistic choices of this collection is the alternating use of first, second, and third person pronouns. While many of the prose poems are situated in the intimacy of first person, some go a step further and lean on the use of “you” to bring the reader even closer to the intensity of a moment or experience. The efficacy of this is highlighted in the juxtaposition of third person peppered throughout, pieces that are free to play with “mother” as a representation of all mothers or branch out into explorations of fairytale and unlikely characters, such as a woman commandeering traffic cones she places around her home to “memorize the hazards.”

Buchen’s collection is rounded out with the birth of her second child, and how that both heals her and creates new challenges. In the title poem, “Look Look Look,” the second child is a reminder of the ways the body is changed through pregnancy. Buchen catalogues “The daughter’s cells, the cells of the new baby, the cells of the baby that was lost. All the people of this body.” Buchen alludes to a beauty in the prenatal connection and a loss that comes with seeing a child on the outside and knowing they will slowly move further and further from the mother. How motherhood is in many ways a gateway to losing the thing you want to hold closest.

Look Look Look is a beautiful and excruciating exploration of the journey of motherhood and what it really means to be woman, body, wife and mother. Buchen considers the relationships of mother and child, husband and wife, woman and body in ways that have often been hidden. She asks us to look in the dark corners. Look through the window where the mother nurses her children into dusk. Look at the blood stains on the couch. Look at the grief she carries around her neck. Look at how she breaks for her children, how “she grows stiff, tries to hold them until she becomes a door, and they all walk through.”

Look Look Look, by Callista Buchen. Black Lawrence Press, October 2019. 60 pages. $16.95, paper.

Christen Kauffman lives in Richmond, Indiana, with her husband and two daughters. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Willow Springs, Booth, The Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, and The Normal School, among others.

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