August 15, 2012

Review by Carole Ann BorgesWild in the Plaza of Memory by Pamela Uschuk

WILD IN THE PLAZA OF MEMORY
by Pamela Uschuk

Wings Press
627 E Guenther
San Antonio, TX, 78210-1134
ISBN 9780916727925
2012, 102 pp., $16.00
www.wingspress.com

One of the most appealing aspects of Ushuk’s work is her empathy. In touch with communities that struggle and suffer cruel and unexpected circumstances, where things happen to people through no fault of their own, this poet understands the nobility of survival.

My student tells me of her husband, injured
this week in a coal mine when a boulder
smashed a detour in his side, severing
the tendons in his knee. She doesn’t know
how she’ll feed her kids, let alone stay in school.

Uschuk knows how to ask essential questions. She values moments of inquiry because she knows that by following the deepest threads of our emotions and thoughts unexpected insights can be delivered.

Where do they come from—those
gales that whip branches out of our hands
like the faces of those we love
who won’t stay in place?
How do we begin to untangle
the snarled hair of goodbye?

The last two lines of that poem reveal Uschuk at her most brilliant. Her use of metaphor is powerful and accessible. Too often poetry tends towards a mysticism that baffles the average person. “I don’t understand it,” says Aunt Mary, as if poetry was a puzzle only people of high intelligence could solve. It could be argued that Uschuk’s greatest gift is her ability to address existential questions through the use of simple images and objects. “The snarled hair of goodbye” is a perfect example. This earthy and intimate image resonates on a sensual level. It evokes childhood pain. Who hasn’t suffered at the hand of a mother’s comb? It also portrays a sense of dishevelment, of confusion. Untangling our snarled
memories is serious business. We can’t, of course, know the answer to her why–but at some point in our lives we do all ask that question.

Uschuk’s poems often turn to nature for answers.

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.

But this poet knows the rush of contemporary life seldom leaves time for introspection. As harried as everyone else, she tries to balance responsibility with a desire to muse upon more spiritual questions.

What have I misnamed
today in my rush from car to class to office
to car, what essentials are missing?

As the poet journeys through a variety of landscapes, she seeks remedies to heal the fallen world, and finds them in words.

Om mani padme HUM—and the hungry traffic
of the world dissolves. Peace
and the flame-tinted lily tilts its six tongues
to a shifting sky.

In the end, it is the words she hears and the words she speaks that bring transcendence. Uschuk’s observance of nature is not romanticized or naïve. As in Native American culture, creatures become helpmates and teachers. Stories inform us.

All I know are stories that tie us
to the songs of cactus wrens
braving thorns on a jumping cholla to make a nest.

Although we can find temporary refuge in nature, the poet reminds us that these moments are transitory and all too brief. Several poems deal with contemporary tragedies–our several wars, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, the immigrant’s plight, and homelessness. Uschuk reminds us that like the elephant, we must never forget that the journey to universal peace is a long one. In the meantime, she suggests that the balm of words, the incense of poetry can fortify and renew us.

Oh, body of poems holding out washcloths
to cool the foreheads of soldiers
blistering on the streets of Baghdad, poems
holding out cups of honeyed milk
to children starving in Darfur sand, poems
leaping with their hearts into rivers
runoff swollen and drowning their own banks.

In a poem honoring Neruda, the power of poetry is made relevant:

Today not bees but the scald of those verses thrust
tongues sharp as carpenter ants
dismembering the lies of politicians, tongues
simple as hand-thatched brooms
or dun-colored sparrows lifting from the vast dark folds of tyranny’s sleeves
all who remain hungry
and hunted in our world.

Uschuk’s poems build bridges between the sacred and the fallen. In this way, her work offers hope of transcendence. To walk with this poet along the paths her mind takes is pure joy. To listen to the hymn-like language she uses is a form of receiving the sacred wafer of a linguistic communion.

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Carole Ann Borges spent most of her childhood aboard an old schooner on the Mississippi River. She learned the art of storytelling from fishermen, the people who lived along riverbanks, and also from the river itself. Her poems have appeared in Poetry and numerous other literary magazines. Her essays and newspaper articles were published in City View, Eva, Pacific Yachting and Rudder Magazine. She currently lives in North Knoxville, Tenn. Her memoir Dreamseeker’s Daughter will be launched in November 2012.