Defiant Transformation in “Refugee”

At this pivotal point in history, the word “refugee” holds many different meanings and connotations. As Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine progresses and more than five million Ukrainians flee their homes, anyone paying attention to the media hears the word “refugee.” Naturally, people are inclined to immediately think of the traditional definition of the word — “a person forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” However, in Pamela Uschuk’s poetry collection Refugee, readers discover refugees of many kinds, not only refugees who fit the traditional definition but also those who redefine what it means to be a refugee. In Uschuk’s collection, refugees from racism seek shelter and justice in volatile environments, both human and animal refugees seek respite from climate change’s irreversible disasters, and those living with incurable diseases find the courage to continue pursuing a life amid the political, cultural, and environmental chaos each new day spent in astute observation of nature offers.

Poems like “Talking Crow” balance nature’s tranquility with humanity’s inherent bend toward violence. Crows “pull dead leaves” as “day dries folded wings over the Carolinas.” Nature’s cleansing happens subtly as “sky weeps pavement a darker shade of tears.” Then, the poem’s true message comes forth as “bullet holes chip downtown streets.” An echo refrains with the thrice-repeated phrase “Don’t shoot,” a phrase made even more powerful by the author’s use of italics and centered by the images of human grief juxtaposed with a crow’s curiosity.

A violence and grief of a different sort sears through the collection — that of facing an incurable illness like cancer. In “Green Flame,” readers encounter a speaker comparing their own mortality with that of a deceased hummingbird. The poem’s utilization of waxing and waning long and short lines creates a musicality in the poem:

                        Slender as my ring finger, the female hummingbird crashed
                        into plate glass separating her and me
                        before we could ask each other’s name. Green flame,
                        she launched from a dead eucalyptus limb.

The speaker observes the hummingbird’s death: “Almost on impact, she was gone.” The speaker also acknowledges the pain with which the bird’s death leaves them as well as the speaker’s own ability to grieve. The speaker’s grief is spontaneous, a moment erupting in the recognition that they are “too weak from chemo not to cry.” The poem’s conclusion hints at the speaker’s momentary nod to their own mortality as they carry the dead hummingbirds. The speaker also embraces existence’s futility:
                        Mourning doves moaned, who, who,
                        oh who
while her wings closed against the tiny body
                        sky would quick forget as soon it forget mine.

A similar theme follows in the poem “Western Tanager,” a poem in which the speaker approaches a dead tanager. The speaker observes the “desiccated body perfect, black wings / tucked under the slick yellow back.” The speaker’s imagistic description of the deceased bird creates reverence and respect, a respect that permeates the poem as the speaker continues their descript. Most notable about this poem is the deviation in its continuous form that begins in stanza form. In this stanza, shortened lines and indentations create the sense of loosening and letting go, a structure that reinforces lines like “Time never rests.” The poem’s ending, however, is the most striking part of the poem. The speaker states, “its ghost prints leading us over a horizon giddy / with insistent light / we cannot conceive will ever end.” The speaker’s statement is stark, almost a warning about how humanity forgets that its collective actions, such as its over-reliance on fossil fuels, bear significant consequences on those it often overlooks or ignores.

“Web” is another of the collection’s poetic gems. In this poem, once again Uschuk displays her ability to capture nature’s finest lessons about community and existence and the fragility of both. The poem’s speaker observes a web spun by a black widow on which “slow bottle flies land on to lay eggs / the spider wraps in silk.” The speaker recognizes their place in correlation to nature’s processes: “I watch the tiny mummies multiply / guarded by the arachnid who glares at me.” The speaker wonders “whether vine and spider despise / or love one another,” and asks if their relationship is “simple necessity” or “a union / sealed with the wax of cooperation.” The speaker later observes the dangling web, the spider’s vanishing, and the gleaming “slim arm of a vine / stretching to the doorknob, dexterous,” and they describe the relationship between the web and the plant as “beautiful as calligraphy suspended / between the living and the dead who’ve moved on.” The poem bears a strong message about the importance of balance, but more significantly, it echoes the message about existence and futility from “Green Flame” while reinforcing the idea that for communities to succeed, all parties must collaborate and uplift one another.

As the collection segues toward its ending, readers discover “Levitation.” The poem opens with “the owl of sorrow” addressing an unnamed “her.” Readers can infer that the “her” is the levitation named in the poem’s title. The poem asks two distinct philosophical questions:

                        How many of us have mistaken Venus
                        for Jupiter with all its nattering moons
                        strung like uncut opals along its equator?
                        How many of us have believed the lie?

These questions act as a shift in the poem, and the poem’s tone becomes political. Rather than relying on metaphor or simile to address the Trump administration’s persistent narratives about building a wall along the United States’ southern border, the speaker uses clear, raw imagery to present the issue. The speaker states:
                        There are men whose tongues cut
                        syllables into stilettos
                        from the unfurling human cloth of kindness, men
                        who would build the wall higher
                        and thicker between countries.

The poem’s tone becomes even more draconian as the speaker states that these men “would plant / surveillance cameras in their wives’ camisoles.” The poem becomes even more layered, especially as the speaker describes the poem’s mysterious “she” and the hopelessness and despair she carries because of the men’s actions. As the “she” flees, the speaker observes the state of entrapment in which the “she” lives. It is a debilitating environment, one that results in the ”she” wanting to “lick her own fingers, pull / them like plows down her lover’s cheeks.” The simile alludes to sexual violence, an image reinforced by the poem’s final lines: “but they’ve run off with the owl to count stars / in the bottom of someone else’s cup / from which she refuses to drink.” In essence, the most conspicuous of the lines is “from which she refuses to drink,” a line that ultimately makes the poem one of female defiance in the face of abusive male dominance and patriarchies which threaten female existence.

Boldy defiant and passionately descriptive, Pamela Uschuk’s Refugee is a documentary in verse of the myriad ways in which brave people become lost in a chaotic world. Its messages about humanity, politics, violence and climate change are stark. Nonetheless, central to the collection’s message is one of transformation — one that will motivate anyone with a shred of humanity to navigate toward a new vision, one of positive social change and the reconnection with each other and with nature the entire world so desperately needs.

By Pamela Uschuk
Red Hen Press
Published May 10, 2022