Red Hen Press ($16.95)
by Tara Ballard
“So you think that you can live remote / from city streets paved with bullet casings, / mass shootings in churches, refugee mothers in cages,” Pamela Uschuk questions in “A History of Morning Clouds and Contrails,” challenging both herself and the reader. Fortunately, it’s a challenge well met; Refugee reveals itself through a tapestry of well-crafted poems of urgency and the hope for meaningful change. Uschuk, winner of an American Book Award, here rejects the assumption that nature poetry is apolitical or unengaged with the social realm, instead asserting that climate crisis is inseparable from human crisis, domestic and international. She also rejects the myth of the solitary poet and draws on community, which she defines as an ecosystem of people, flora, and fauna. Through poems that powerfully render a world where individual action holds value and every life is one that matters, Refugee chronicles the many ways in which environmental and political disaster, cancer, and racism affect our ability to exist, live, and thrive. Through the literal and the metaphorical, the sensory and the narrative, Uschuk urges this recognition: “The mountains are burning and we cannot sleep.”
Uschuk begins Refugee with two epigraphs that serve as an anchor, pulling the reader into a bardic relationship in which the poems become messengers; they ask for writer, speaker, and reader to address their own obligations to the content and how it relates to the wellness of the world. Uschuk offers first Audre Lorde’s powerful acknowledgment that “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” She follows this with an excerpt from Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” a poem that riveted the world in the wake of 9/11. With these epigraphs, Uschuk sets the tone and the expectations for the collection ahead, as if warning: Yes, reader, I implicate myself, I implicate my country, and you, too, must join the work for social, political, and environmental justice.
Refugee is divided into four sections, titled “Skull Song,” “Axis,” “Liquid Book of the Dead,” and “Speaking of Angels and Ghosts,” respectively. The sections grow in length, from seven poems to eleven to fifteen to nineteen, creating a crescendo-like accumulation, of story, tension, and the sensory as a place for healing and discourse. Throughout, images are interwoven with specific political moments from 2016 to 2021, harrowing occasions that highlight the need for greater understanding and action.
In poems such as “Solar Eclipse in the Land of Sandstone Hoodoos and Cranes,” the collection highlights the speaker’s varied interactions with her environments, including beautiful (but not romanticized) depictions of Arizona, Florida, and the Himalayas. In many instances, Uschuk weaves resonance between these locales and the resilience needed to overcome cancer: “I have to make you sick to make you well, / the oncologist says, five months / we’ll scour each cell of your abdomen clean.” In doing so, Uschuk departs from the taught hierarchy of worth and recognizes how survival and death equalize us all, from the human to the hummingbird. In the sonnet “Green Flame,” the speaker portrays one such hummingbird and its death after hitting the poet’s window: “Too weak from chemo not to cry / . . . / I lifted her weightlessness into my palm.” The poem ends: “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.” Through poems like this, Uschuk cultivates a position of empathy and reflection, understanding that both are required for forward motion.
Throughout Refugee, Uschuk does not shy away from the difficult, and she uses particular species as entry points into much-need conversations about human rights. In “Cracking One Hundred,” Uschuk narrates a scene where “preschoolers worry about butterflies” being able to fly over the U.S.-made border wall along Mexico; by conjuring this image, Uschuk addresses the camps where children and parents seeking asylum are separated and held under inhumane conditions. The poem closes with a reference to the president’s declarations from “across the lush White House lawn where Monarch butterflies, / who’ve migrated all the way from Mexico, land / on bright rose petals.” Likewise, in “Talking Crow,” Uschuk immerses the reader in our nation’s history of violence, from lynch mobs to continued police brutality: “Here bullet holes chip downtown streets, / alternative facts to ropes slung over oak / branches that still remember”; the poem builds to the sonic echo of crows imitating the words of “mothers, wives” and “a child’s witness face”: “Don’t shoot. Don’t / shoot”—an irrefutable exposure of the oppressive systems that pervade American society.
Reaching the final poem of Refugee, “Gardenias at Easter,” one is compelled to start again at the beginning; the realizations she has offered permeate like “the gardenias that resurrect us, . . . call us back // ecstatic to the forgotten.” In this powerful collection grounded in the now, Uschuk calls for the re-membering and reconstructing of perceptions between place, animal, plant, and human.
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