“How slow the aftershock of memory, the stink / of fingertips charred by the stark / yap of amped volts sparking / our parents’ angry screams at our stupidity / when we ran to them for help,” writes Pamela Uschuk in “Night Terrors,” which is part of her newest collection of poems Blood Flower. Uschuk’s poem is recalling, among many things, the story of her three-year-old brother sticking his fingers into an electrical outlet. But what the poem’s really driving to is a central point of this intricately organized collection that is at once personal, political, imagistic, and a melding of lyric and narrative so excitingly used it is difficult to tell where one mode starts and the other ends: “Even at four, I gauged electricity as a kind of song–take / care of yourself syllables that gnawed through the wires of my childhood.” To write the younger self, one must, for a moment, be the younger self. And in this poem, and the collection at-large, Uschuk is her past and present.
One of Blood Flower’s greatest achievements is Uschuk’s willingness to not separate the past from the present, to insist that what happened when she was four stayed in the wires of her life, which become the amped volts in these poems, which together tell a story of taking care of herself, and also her commitment to people taking care of people and poetry’s place in the history of witness and action.
The highest praise I can give a poem or a book of them is, yes, that I will read and want to write, but even more when a collection infiltrates my thinking and I begin to recollect myself because the collection is living in my conscious and subconscious, asking me to see myself and the world in the way it does.
Early in Blood Flower we encounter “Red Menace” and learn the speaker was raised in the American Midwest (Michigan), that the speaker’s father was a decorated U.S. serviceman in World War II, that he farmed like many in their town, but we also learn that what should have created a celebrated American family was withheld because the speaker is Russian. Thus, “Now I know why my teachers refused / to pronounce my name. / They knew. / In their very simplest syllables, / they knew– / Jones, Pierce, Drew– / Russian rides roughshod, / a Tartar horseman across / the tongue, dances / tranced as the bear / Siberian shamans become.” The older speaker knows what the younger speaker didn’t; that her teachers refused, not that they didn’t know how to say her name. Under Uschuk’s hand, though, this isn’t just understood because of the narrative, but they way the lines are crafted. Much of the marvel here is less the story and more its crafting. “They knew” works doubly as they knew how to say the Russian name, but they also knew the family was Russian, a heritage in the younger speaker’s time so fraught with anxiety none of her father’s medals or work could vindicate his family’s origins.
These lines are but one example of this master craftswoman’s work at work. I say craftswoman for a couple of reasons. One, Uschuk is a woman, and two, because so much of Blood Flower is born of that early resonance take / care of yourself. As the collection moves piece by piece, section by section, we encounter a bold truth demonstrating a family and feminist and eco and anti-war politic (the kind of anti-war politic that supports servicemen and women) that’s shaped Uschuk’s understanding of the world and poetry’s place in the world: Origin. Woman. Poet. Daughter. Mother. Sister. Partner. In Blood Flower each of these roles/ideas has a political implication greater than its own definition. These poems are searching without didacticism, they are asking and examining. “What does a house without pages feel?” for instance Uschuk writes in “Craft Lesson,” What Kevlar vest can it wear without words / to turn the bullets of the world / into songs to staunch its raging grief?”
I began thinking about the “one time” instances throughout Blood Flower. A word, in Uschuk’s hand, is both instance and action, statement and echo. Phosphorous and shrapnel are two of the collection’s most striking repetitions:
From “Iron and Lace”
When Kasia plays, stars hold their breath–
she can hear them hiss–then shear
like mortars exploding sexual shrapnel
through each body in the room.
From “The Trick”
So far from answers, I mailed cookies,
chocolate and poems, but
I couldn’t send you snow banks
or the way to come home.
Even now, white phosphorous blinds your dreams
and your buddy, decapitated
in the first battle, still
throws his head through your heart.
From “Knowing the Enemy” for Uschuk’s brother, a Vietnam Veteran.
These are the riddled hands of my enemy
yanking the pin from a phosphorous grenade
to toss into the nest of questions
distressing my rebellious heart.
From “Ferry Shelling”
The report relays only six killed, all
except the twenty-six year old man
returning from Cyprus with tickets for Canada
and a new life, to take his pregnant wife
away from Beirut’s daily ecumenical argument
of mortars and car bomb fires.
Did the young man see it all
in a flash of phosphorous
before the concussion stilled everything?
Wordsworth’s belief that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility” is like a generation believing in a golden era before itself, believing the past can be explained and understood, believing emotion and experience will inevitably bring peace of mind. Blood Flower removes the dominantly ideological white male poet’s perspective from poetry’s mouth to fight the idea of “golden era” as it works to make one in its moment, which doesn’t want to suffer the past’s injustices. Blood Flower contends that poetry is political and makes its space without apology or reservation; makes its own “golden era” as Uschuk works to actualize Adrienne Rich’s dream of a common language in our now.
On November 8, the United States held one of its most momentous general elections; momentous for many reasons I need not explain here, they have been explained to their own deaths. Today, just under half the United States population is looking for something. Today, just over half the American population feels something has been found. In just over two months a newly elected official will be sworn in to the American presidency. Perhaps the newly elected official will continue the tradition begun by John F. Kennedy and ask a poet to read at the inauguration ceremony. Perhaps the newly elected official won’t.
“Some nights everything hangs / from the hooks of faith,” Uschuk begins Blood Flower’s closing poem, “Faith.” Last night so much depended on a collective faith in a system, a way of knowing, not close to as old as poetry. Last night so much faith was confirmed for some, turned to question or dissolution by others. This morning Blood Flower might mean differently to you, or to us, or to those of us who put our faith in poems, those of us who know poems carry the news. “A blue map of the world is pinned / like a porthole to my wall. / On it I mark where friends, scattered / across the continent, write.” Uschuk’s news comes from each of the past’s presents, from a tradition of one day and night at a time, from her own past and from poetry’s past, from past presidents and momentous general elections, from faith that cancer can be cured, from why it matters that makers make.
Ushuck makes poetry happen, makes one day at a time visible in the presentness of her past, of ours. It is no accident that Blood Flower arrives at “Faith.” Uschuk makes clear that nothing will not happen. Uschuk is a voice placing flowers in the barrels of rifles. If you’re wondering today where to go, if last night everything hung on the hooks of faith, I say let Pam Uschuk show you what faith can be. That’s what I’m doing today, Pam, as “I close my eyes and hear / your songs magnify the lunar tide, / oldest of sisters, that / muses just beyond my door.”