Pamela Uschuk is, in my view, one of our country’s best poets. Her new book, REFUGEE, shows precisely why. Her poems rise up from careful craft, scattering beauty, detailed descriptions, merged with an anger at injustice and a persistent hope for the world that we could create. Her insistence, that her poems are not just pretty and tasty, puts her in the wide and necessary tradition of American poetry that cannot be silent in the face of human cruelty, America not living up to its own words. Pamela Uschuk’s words, in these poems, share delight at the natural world, at the same time as she laments and “borders on anger” at what we do to one another.
In this reflection/review, I will focus on just a few of her poems and hope that you will find this book and savor them. Let them take you. Let them teach you. These poems can do it. REFUGEE comes from Red Hen Press. It is available HERE and in all the normal places.
The beauty of this book begins at the cover. Daniela Connor has designed a stunning front using a painting by the poet’s sister, Valerie Uschuk. The violinist depicted seems to be yearning, almost dancing, as he plays. This is a fitting door to a book of poems that does both of those things.
In the book’s opening poem, “A History of Morning Clouds and Contrails,” Uschuk establishes herself in the line of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and others, by speaking directly to us, readers. She dares us: “So you think that you can…” from there she warns us that, of course, we cannot live apart from mass shootings, children taken from parents at the border, and more. She shows us too, a woman who “… is. desperate, mistakes bullets / she jams in her ex-husband’s gun for / her own screams, for his incessant fists.” She offers a clear warning that “What we relinquish in the name of security / manipulates what we would breathe.”
A gorgeous merging of beauty and anger happens in the very next poem, “Bulk.” She contemplates the perfection of the elephant, the manatee, even gardenias, but then asks us to “Consider” their beauty beside the bulk of what we use to destroy these lives.
Consider the bulk of a manatee
as big as a taxi, nearly weightless
in the clear blue eye of a limestone springs…
Then she shows us
…the bulk of a propeller as it slices
through calm waterways…
It is her ability to hold the beauty beside the violence that distinguishes these poems, makes them matter.
One of her strongest poems is “Aggravated Child Theft.” Many of us are still shocked at the former US president’s cruelty, his ability to separate children from their parents at the border, by the thousands, with no hesitation. As one pundit said, “The cruelty was the point.” In this poem, she connects those illegal and immoral acts to Terezin, one of humanity’s worst moments. She is right to make that comparison. In her brilliant and artful way, she places these acts “Far from the Statue of Liberty…” where “ICE confiscates / thousands of toddlers and children…”
Uschuk hits these human outrages with graceful language, always opting for restraint and in so doing, she keeps us at her side. She invites rather than forces. This is part of her brilliance.
One of my favorite poems in this collection is a celebration of mortality. “Green Flame” shows us the poet picking up a dead hummingbird who perished upon hitting a plate glass window. The poet holds this delicate bird, considers her own illness, as well as her own mortality. She brings the rest of nature into her sorrow in three magnificent closing lines:
Mourning doves moaned “who, who
oh who” while her wings closed against the tiny body
sky would quick forget as soon as it would forget mine.
In “Bordering on Hysteria,” I feel like I’m listening to Frida Kahlo comment on the Trump presidency. And this is a good thing. (Imagine that commentary for a moment!) Uschuk imagines that she might “sew jaguars to the hem of my skirt…” Rather, and thankfully, she decides she will compose a poem that
borders on anger knowing it will be
arrested for leaving water in the desert for families…
She writes a poem that
…shouts, beating her fists raw against twenty-foot high
steel plates dividing the heart of this nation…
Then , as in many of her poems, she commits to this:
I will not border on hysteria but will work
on a poem to feed all of us, a poem ground
from maize and jugs of fresh water to leave on the altar of need,
a poem with warm pillows and blankets to melt icy lies…
Pamela Uschuk is the American poet we need in this moment. These poems delight us, enchant us, but they also urge us. They ask something of us. This is precisely what poetry should do. Pamela Uschuk does it.