Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Guest Review: Hymas on Uschuk

Sarah Hymas reviews
by Pamela Uschuk

All four sections of Crazy Love, the new collection from American poet Pamela Uschuk, are equally exuberant in their exploration of subjects: be that journeying, friendship, love, death, or war. Her language has a fecundity matched only by the natural world she immerses herself in and which she sees growing within the rest of us too:
"… how your mind howls like a coyote
in a desert terrorized by memory."

At first I felt I might be overwhelmed by the richness, the heightened detail of the world Uschuk inhabits, but the informality of her delivery, the regard and attention to everyday encounters, keeps the poems low-key and insistent rather than hyperbolic.
            Which is crucial given the political nature of many the poems – the deviations via Vietnam, slavery, Iraq, feminism are irregular but frequent excursions from the more didactic subjects of her autobiography. And for the most part these deviations locate the poems in its time, place them the wider context of territory (the conflict for physical, emotional and social territory being the subtext throughout). This is a collection very much of its time (published 2009), with America steeped in foreign war.
In 'White Moths' 'the surgical scar /grin of the President' appears among moths that are fragile, stale, and ultimately vanishing, perfectly tying the flickery nature of moth with the smile, and finally coffin flags. This is a cohesive, authentic poem. As are the ones that are set in domestic situations: dinner and the view from a window; where the external imagery of war and environmental disasters are married to the players in the poems, affecting them remotely. As they are in life.
Sometimes, however, the diversions feel more forced, such as the poem 'Planting Tigritas After Snow in April' which begins "Like a Lear jet out of control, wind shears…" and then no more fighter imagery in a poem that turns out to be about marriage and growth. If it's out of control, what are the consequences? Surely more impactful than tulip flowers? It lessens the power of such imagery when it is used more potently elsewhere in the collection. And reduces the intensity of the meditation on planting.

The most successful poems for me are the more intimate, less ambitious ones, declarations to parents, descriptions of time spent with friends and loved ones, that still roll down the page like the Colorado River, in a litany of creatures, flowers, myths, film and personal incidents, but hold the emotional impetus tightly throughout the unravelling, the poem plays off between being huge and painfully private at the same time, as our deepest emotions are:
"Today is your birthday Dad, and what heads
for me is memory's long smoulder
damp as campfire coals
on a star-spidered Michigan beach
where somewhere offshore your voice bells"
Uschuk clearly loves her country to the point of horror at what it is doing in other countries, and balances these emotions throughout the book. It is a complex business being a citizen of any country, especially one so beautiful, diverse and so demanding of loyalty.
There is so much of America in this collection: so many of the states as well as references to where America has fought, it amazes me that Uschuk has the time to cover such ground both physically and then again emotionally and metaphorically. But her passion is evident. Her greed for experience and generosity for sharing it runs through the book, sustains it and will probably sustain many many more.
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