By Pam Uschuk
Wings Press, 2012
Reviewed by Doug Anderson
Stephanie Brown ~ Editor: Book Review
Pam Uschuk’s new book of poems, Wild in the Plaza of Memory, (Wings Press, 2012), begins with a poem that asks what the power of poetry is. Commemorating the death of Lorca by firing squad, it celebrates his ability to make the ordinary luminous. How threatening that must be to those whose life project is to control and eliminate human imagination. Her apostrophe to Lorca ends with the line, “Did they so fear the delicacy of your hands?”
Kwame Dawes once said at a lecture at Pacific University of Oregon that in third world countries there is a larger readership for poetry: even the police read it. He was being witty, but he was also speaking to the power of poetry, its psychic anarchy, its ability to make language fresh in a time of totalitarian newspeak. In our own culture the institutional mind has rejected poetry by ignoring it instead of repressing it, and in so doing, deprived itself of something essential and salvific.” I wonder if poetry might slip underneath a CEO’s armor and trouble his sleep; and even if the popular-cultured don’t read it, so many people’s thoughts and actions are informed by poetry to suggest it is refracted into the culture by other means: say, a spirited Occupy movement, a growing tribe of people who cannot, will not fit in the shrunk medieval vision of the American right, and demand the constant renewal of language.
Poetry is by its nature political, even the poetry of poets who claim not to be political. Any good poem afflicts the comfortable by awakening them to the luminous reality just outside whatever tunnel vision comes with this or that ideology. Poetry is a spring bubbling up at the base of language, and for all the fear of poetry being a dying form, there is more of it now than there ever has been. Reading Pam Uschuk’s poems is all the evidence I need that poetry thrives: “Throw open/the windows in rooms mildewed/by the rhetoric of fear to/hear ravens invent laughter/we’ll all need at the end of our ropes.”
The ninety five pages of poetry in Wild in the Plaza of Memory is a fugue of love, politics and nature, all growing from one another, the three strands crackling with electricity where they touch. But these strands are never entirely separate. The ghost of Uschuk’s first and now deceased husband, a Vietnam Veteran, is reflected in the faces of two, Latino Vietnam vets, one disabled, who are in danger of being deported because “…they cannot prove which side of the border they were on.” Of her nephew, she writes that his insomnia is “the flensed finches that chatter him awake.” Here nature blooms into empathy that is for Uschuk a form of love. We are wired to the universe in such a way that what happens anywhere in it affects us, as we affect it by our actions. And this is true even of gated communities and ideologically unreachable neighborhoods. There is no getting away from the things in life that make poetry; and what is healing is that poets, through their individual root systems, grow poetry and bring it into the world with a kind of spiritual coherence: it makes forms for the energy that might otherwise be frightening, that sends the flensed finches into our dreams. Uschuk understands this and her poems testify to it.
Nature in Uschuk’s poems is beautiful and fierce. Hers is not the heavily edited nature of executives vacationing in the Bahamas. It is elemental: “Wind’s so crazy in love with dust/this afternoon she’s writing her wild middle name/on the inside of ravens’ wings.” But this ferocity is also revivifying: “My love and I enter the far grotto/slick as vulva or oiled nipples,/heat woozed, the only couple/ inside this giant geode…”
Uschuk’s poetry is erotic in the true sense of the word, which is sexual but more than sexual; it makes love to life, it loves every instance of surprise to be found amid the attempts to control it, to poison it, to make is lesser than the beings who are a part of it: “Nothing saves me but this highway/cut through a desert where old volcanoes/remake themselves according to angles/of rainlight…” These are poems to help us become most like ourselves.
Doug Anderson’s memoir, Keep Your Head Down: Vietnam, The Sixties, And a Journey of Self-Discovery was published by W.W. Norton in 2009. His book of poetry, The Moon Reflected Fire won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award in 1995; and Blues for Unemployed Secret Police a grant from the Eric Matthew King Fund of The Academy of American Poets. His work has appeared in many literary journals including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Field, Ploughshares, The Southern Review and The Massachusetts Review. He has received fellowships and grants from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Massachusetts Cultural Council and other funding organizations. In addition to poetry and creative nonfiction he has written plays, screenplays and journalism. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. In May, he will become poet in residence at Fort Juniper, the former home of the poet Robert Francis.