Blood Flower by Pamela Uschuck. Wings Pess, 2014. 128 pages. $16.00.
Family Life, War, and Identity
Saturated with unbridled emotions and peppered with the shrapnel of history, Pamela Uschuk’s collection of poetry in Blood Flowers examines family life, the unforgiveable costs war, and one’s own sense of purpose and belonging. Drawing on both Mother Russia and the American Southwest as a canvas for much of her work, Uschuk creates images of the past that are rife with beauty and pain, as she takes us on a journey often fraught with tears, and at times, joy.
Uschuk’s poem, June’s Hottest Day, is one of many poems that are rife with beauty and pain. In this piece, the speaker is an infant about to leave the safety of her mother’s womb to enter the chaotic world outside. She begins with an image of her mother in labor: “sweats through the armpits of Michigan’s humid blue housedress,/and my mother screams,” and couples the physically draining act of giving birth with a light-hearted metaphor of the infant’s descent through the birth canal: “where I twirl in my first waltz.” The infant’s joyous dancing reflects the innocence that one has at birth, an innocence that begins to be stripped away upon birth into an unpredictable world. The speaker continues the musical metaphor with “The music I hear is water’s promise/gushing to the linoleum floor,/the memory of red ocean,/the arterial blood of sky I will adore.” The tone of the poem soon changes, slowly letting its lighthearted feeling slip away, as evident in the infant’s recognition that her mother “must be cut to set me free.” As the infant emerges from the womb, she is surrounded by a world unfamiliar to her, a world that will judge her and expose her to its chaos: “ballooning to scream against strange hands/that begin to measure me, hanging me/by my heels to see/the world’s upside-down surgery.”
The idea of judgment and chaos, coupled with one’s sense of belonging comes into play in another poem, Red Menace, at the very first line when the speaker announces “Now I know why teachers refused/to pronounce my name,” remarking on the difficulty of its foreign sound. Letting the words waltz across her tongue, she continues “Russian rides roughshod,/a Tartar horseman across/the tongue, dances/tranced as the bear/Siberian shamans become.” It is within these lines that the speaker begins to examine her own sense of identity and what it means have Mother Russia coursing through her veins. She awakens to the cruelty of the world when teachers and classmates alike “called us/Commies for a joke,” to which she responds defiantly “Wait till we take over the world!” Her actions, acts of self-preservation from the schoolhouse bullies, land her in the principal’s office. The irony unrecognized by the speaker’s teachers and classmates is that her father, an ethnic Russian, is an American war veteran: “An Air Corps hero/in both theatres/of the Second World War.” Looking back on her childhood fraught with bullying and memories of McCarthyism, she remarks, “After all these years/it’s clear what it was/those teachers couldn’t name—/not just the consonants/but the roots,” and it is these roots that run so deeply throughout her work.
An examination of Uschuk’s work would not be complete without noting how beautifully she uses both the American Southwest and Russia as her canvas for her poetry. In her poem, Blood Flower, she reflects on Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva’s work—safe within the embrace of the American Southwest. The speaker opens with “Tonight I should be dancing with my best friend/in some monsoon-humid Tucson bar,/my hips swinging to memories old/as the diamond pictographs etched in stars.” As she reads and rereads Tsvetayeva’s work, she absorbs the poet’s tortured history and her banishment to Siberia by Stalin, and consequently, the speaker feels the weight of those words: “but I cannot leave your poems./Their flint/blistering my hands./In photos, black as ice,/vast spruce forests stun your eyes/in the Siberia taiga Stalin banished you to.” As a “cricket sings to desert,” the speaker envisions Tsvetayeva’s life under oppressive rule: “Stalin stole every last ruble, denied you bread,/but the worst card of havoc he dealt/forbade you to write./You/who called love, a flower watered with blood,/were finally abandoned by every lover.” Not only does Uschuk capture Tsvetayeva’s banishment in her poetry, she also celebrates the poet’s defiance, as evident when she says, “I think of you alone except for poems scratched/on scraps you stuffed beneath your bed, verse/clandestine as passion burning the aging folds of your skin.” In the third to last stanza, Uschuk deftly points out the high price the Russian poet has paid under Stalin’s rule where she says, “With nothing left for your tongue/but winter’s awful ghost flowers, you refused/the ocean, then paradise/as you bent into the noose,” noting Tsvetayeva’s suicide after years and years of terrible loss. This is not where Uschuk ends, however, as she moves into the final stanza to celebrate the poet: “I would give you tonight, Marina,/your tree, a mountain ash, that/dances wild outside my door to wind/awakening beneath the healing wheel of stars.”
Nuanced with Russia and the American Southwest, Uschuk’s poetry sings songs of family life, the cost of war and oppression, along with one’s quest for personal identity. With the hand of an artist and an ear for the musicality of words, Pamela Uschuk’s Blood Flower captures the heart and awakens the soul with its unbound poetry.
About the author:
For more than a decade Wanda has been working as a writer and adjunct English Professor at MWCC. She has had the pleasure and the honor of working with students with a range of academic and socio-economic backgrounds. She has provided professional instruction in Creative Writing, Scriptwriting, Women’s Literature, Film Appreciation, and English Composition classes. Over the years, Wanda published literary articles, essays and poetry, and most recently, her first novel, The Road Home, a story about one woman’s struggle to come to terms with the past and move forward with her future. In addition to writing, Wanda also runs private writing workshops.