A review of Refugee by Pamela Uschuk

Reviewed by Jayne Marek

by Pamela Uschuk
Red Hen Press
ISBN 978-1-63628-019-6, Paperback, 104 pages, 2022, $16.95

How can we take refuge amid the pains of this world? In this collection, Pamela Uschuk, winner of an American Book Award in 2010, faces the realities of recent social history. A longtime activist for peoples’ and nature’s rights, Uschuk offers precise and unsparing poems. Yet she also ensures that moments of loveliness temper the harsh truths she has observed. This book is an exacting journey of wisdom and resilience.

Opening with a glimpse of “city streets paved with bullet casings” (15), Uschuk enunciates current miseries: the poor and the displaced; environments and animals harmed by human activity; our bodies’ afflictions. We encounter the human toll of dogma that separates parents from children or leads governments to harass citizens and migrants. As members of a political system that can be oppressive, “We enter our own wounds,” Uschuk notes in the poem “Refuge” (80):

On unshaded railroad ties, we sit with families
breathing the sweet tincture of mesquite smoke, watch
a girl’s head lean on her grandma’s T-shirt sleeve, resting
away from alternative facts beating truth blind.

The poet’s wounds include the loss of family members as well as her own experience of cancer treatment. She graphically describes surgery and chemotherapy that sears her veins—the experience of being cut open, the patient’s vulnerability and fear, agony during recovery:

Day’s scalpel slices to widen the gap for hysterectomy…
Suck out cervix, its small knot of disease…
legs splayed, restrained,
tied to the operating table soaked with blood. (“Pathology Report” 52)

We cannot look away from Uschuk’s frank depictions of desperate medical treatments, even as we must face the problems in contemporary politics.

Nevertheless, Uschuk consistently discovers grace amid the temporality and imperfections of life. On page after page, friends, family, and especially nonhuman beings provide integrity and comfort. When a hummingbird strikes a window, in “Green Flame” (55), the observer appreciates the bird yet acknowledges life’s brevity: 

Too weak from chemo not to cry
for the passage of her emerald shine,
I lifted her weightlessness into my palm.

In another image of being suspended between worlds, Ushuk depicts her brother in the freedom of “balancing, lithe as clouds” with one of the Florida manatees (“Bulk,” 18), “where daily before his death, they’d shown up for my brother” (“Giving Up” 36). And “Axis” (31) celebrates how

memory floats me in a kayak on the Sea of Cortez, amazed
at the glassy swell of water lifting
above gorse weed and coral
and the one red reef fish
hovering in an oar’s shadow, pretending to pray.

Uschuk repeatedly invokes the spiritual qualities of animals and birds as a corrective—sometimes a parallel—to human grief. Horses appear, reappear; a barred owl captures a snake; a rare squirrel monkey shows itself to a patient observer. In “Western Tanager” (75), time, which “never rests,” lures us toward “a horizon giddy / with insistent light / we cannot conceive will ever end.” Another moment of grace occurs in “Web,” when the observer notices a leftover strand shining, “as beautiful as calligraphy suspended / between the living and the dead who’ve moved on.” This poetry celebrates what the land and its creatures are capable of, how they remain vital despite precarity. The many lovely moments help offset the facts Uschuk, and readers, cannot look away from. Such balance infuses the book. 

As Uschuk probes the wounds of contemporary existence, we see how deeply she understands human suffering. Fortunately for readers, the author also brings abundant love for this difficult, complicated world that somehow keeps going. As “The Essential Shape” (100) reminds us, “Spinning, the earth begins” again, and “shapes itself with fingers of light.”

About the Reviewer: Jayne Marek’s seventh poetry collection will be Dusk-Voiced (2023). She won the Bill Holm Witness poetry award and was a finalist for the Mary Blinn Poetry Prize in 2021 and 2022. Her writings and art photos appear in Rattle, Spillway, Bloodroot, One, Salamander, Eclectica, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Northwest Review, and elsewhere.