refugee by pamela uschuk

Refugee by Pamela Uschuk


By Greg Bem

Dreams are a way out as much as a way in to the labyrinth.

(“Toward Wings,” page 54)

Refugee, the latest collection by Pamela Uschuk, is a fantastic explorations and reflections that consider the nature of “refugees” and “refuges” through life experiences and circumstances. The poet has crafted a fantastic and large, if not sweeping, world of poems that dive into the core of place and place’s inhabitants. It is a book that is precise; each line feels like an induction of truth, like a piece of process or puzzle, contributing to the overall illumination and the poet’s summation of beauty and catharsis.

The book is divided into several sections, each quizzical and provocative. The opening section, “Skull Song,” is a pensive exploration that brings together thoughts on family, politics, and wildlife under a stark backdrop of oppression. The book’s opening poem, “A History of Morning Clouds and Contrails,” is full of distinct images that draw the reader in while also resounding ominously line to line:

Each morning, ravens carve black questions
that go unanswered by light. Assailed
by headwinds, they sheer, intent on laughter
as they bank nearly upside down to sing.

(page 13)

The juxtapositions found across Uschuk’s book are subtle and rarely glamorous or glamorizing. There is both profundity and grit lingering as subtext. This provocation rises and falls in an established pattern. More than a motif, there is a regulation of both thought and tone throughout the book. Only a few poems later, Uschuk writes in “Bulk”:

I am thinking about bulk, my brother’s six-foot, three-inch
bulk, his large hands stroking the manatee’s face, both
of them weighing less in water than a bale of straw,
squinting at one another, their graceful
balancing, lithe as clouds.

(page 16)

The poet’s magical approach to this collection brings forth exquisite lines that may or may not be sensible, because there is an invitation to the intimate here, the readers as intimates, that poet as establishing trust and invoking privacy of and through memory. But like similar feminist writers, such as Rebecca Solnit and Adrienne Rich, the exquisitely personal is balanced with robust comments on the adversely public. As the book’s title alludes, many of these public illuminations have to do with migration and transition, where the poet focuses intensively on the USA and its borders, and the forever sense of liminality.

Far from the Statue of, ICE confiscates
thousands of toddlers and children wrenched screaming from
the arms of mothers seeking asylum, our history of shame
hooked on the coiled razor-wire laws of inhumanity.

(page 21)

Poems like the one that houses the lines above, “Aggravated Child Theft,” trade subtext for directness, offering steady, concentrated descriptions of the authoritarian approach to the refugees arriving to the country’s southern border. I find these moments to be accelerants to the collection, which pick up the pace and smugly push past the Keatsian ambiguity towards honest, acknowledgeable truth.

Refugee is a dynamic collection, if it hasn’t already come off as such, and one that includes so much it’s impossible to generalize in a single review. The surprises that emerge build upon themselves, revealing, like a card of the sleeve, secret methods and strategies for awe and elevation.

For example, in the second section of the book, “Axis,” which includes poems mostly concerned with the natural world, Uschuk includes a poem on horses filled with energy and a cubist eye for movement: “Give me the huff of a thoroughbred, black / legs pumping through loose sod, hackles / collapsing the far track’s curve, ears / tucked back to her own lunging heartbeat, / dawn fog / smelling of clover and sawdust, the steady chuff / of thunder hooves thudding into earth’s flesh / the sexual joy of speed, flexed shoulders / and thighs gleaming sweat, sweat,” (“Beyond Oxygen,” page 31).

Refugee is not a wholly joyous book. There are moments of pain. There is great sorrow. This is a book that exists in yet another phase of the USA’s failures to its people and tremors of oppression. The poet is not reserved in her explorations of this topography of national sickness. But the poet is also not reserved in being, and being includes being astute, being distinct, and providing the reader with an ongoing invitation to seek and admit depth from the world.

The mountains are burning and we cannot sleep.

(“After the Election, the Super Moon Rises Over the Rincon Mountains,” page 89”)

Refugee is a book that offers succinct stories and mesmerizing images, and it consistently does so from its opening to its close. As such, I find myself grateful for the book as an experience toward poetic enlightenment and the challenge to learn more about myself as a reader and be more aware of the world not so far away.

You can find the book here:

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at