Pamela Uschuk’s latest poetry collection, Refugee (Red Hen Press, 2022), is not a subtle book, but we don’t live in subtle times. For me, these poems re-enact the emotional whiplash I experience when scrolling through social media, where uplifting images of nature and family intimacy are suddenly and repeatedly juxtaposed with the crude horrors of politics in the Trump era. Uschuk’s skills are most on display when describing her Southwest environment in striking, precise imagery: “Corona of ice, the invisible moon/ blesses supplicant cacti offering thorns to heaven,” she writes, or “Sun lifts machetes of light over the Rincons slicing through oleanders.”
I did wish for equally creative language in the political references woven through these poems, which too often didn’t rise above images familiar from the news: Trump’s spray tan and small hands, children in cages, etc. I wanted to see these phenomena through new eyes, learn something new about them, but didn’t always get that from the brief allusions in the poems.
The middle of the book pivots around a sequence of gorgeous, poignant poems about illness and healing, including Uschuk’s journey through ovarian cancer, her brother’s death from after-effects of Agent Orange, a beloved dog’s surgery, and a friend’s bereavement. These hopeful elegies, if I may coin that paradoxical phrase, seem perfectly placed in a book about healing the body politic. Refugee makes the case that our whole earth is one organism, fragile and beautiful, still able to be saved if we look at it clearly and tell the truth.
Pam is an American Book Award winner, and the editor of the well-regarded literary journal Cutthroat. She kindly shares two poems from Refugee with us, below.
Each day I climb onto fear’s broad shoulders, tape
my fingers to fragile reins, weaving them through
the unpredictable angry mane.
The future is a cracked ice cube
plunked in the imagination’s teeming water glass.
Chemo’s breath stinks, could take my life with no regrets.
Fear is a shapeshifter with bloody teeth
or no teeth at all, just a broken jaw of anxiety.
Holding tight to grief’s violin, its arms bruise.
What ifs are its favorite cuisine.
No one can predict how fear can leap
up from a birthday cake or laugh like a monkey on fire.
Fear is a horse starving for grain.
Fear grinds down the raw ore of the heart,
smelting each nodule of grief, removing
its aggregate shield.
I have to make you sick to make you well,
the oncologist says, five months
we’ll scour each cell of your abdomen clean.
Finding a Moth Dead on the Windowsill
for John Uschuk, d. 2010
Astonishing this cecropia, the color of juniper bark,
its thin wings thrust back as if it dove through the stars
just to die here. What broke its flight
while night froze around its intent? I wait a breath
before I touch its final beauty, wonder
if my brother’s broad chest thrust up
to expel the moth wing of his last breath
in the Veteran’s hospice, where Agent Orange
could no longer scar his hands, where
napalm could not scald the scalps of children
he watched incinerating all his life, so that
orphanages called him in dreams, so that he
could not bear the slap of moth wings on his porch
beating insistent as the blades of the helicopter
he shared with body bags going home.