Wild in the Plaza of Memory
by Pamela Uschuk
Nature looms large in Pamela Uschuk’s Wild in the Plaza of Memory. In one poem alone, “In Dharamsala Among Tibetan Exiles,” “Light slides like a silk sleeve / over the water buffalo shoulders of rocks,” “the flame-tinted lily tilts its six tongues / to a shifting sky,” and mountain ridges “razor blue air.” Yet these images gain even more power when contrasted with the political realities Uschuk delivers in blunt, unflinching language. In “Focus of the Mind’s Labyrinth,” dedicated to Ama Adhe, Uschuk describes Adhe’s twenty-seven years in a Chinese prison:
With three hundred women, Ama
was imprisoned, in four years,
two hundred ninety-six starved to death, numbers
too vast for our hearts ripped
open, bereft of calculation.
Raped by cattle prods
interrogators shoved into their birth canals,
into their mouths, beaten
and beaten again, these women
refused to renounce love or their minds
to the butchers
who simply stopped feeding them.
As guards watched, the women ripped their shoes
into finger-sized pieces to share,
chewed strips of flesh men prisoners
sliced from the backs of their own arms
and thighs. The women died anyway
and the men, souls wrapped
in prayer shawls of winter winds
winding from the snows of Annapurna,
from the endurance of sister peaks.
What Uschuk understands, and this becomes especially clear in the Buddhist-influenced middle section of her book, is that beauty is our reward for surviving. After leaving “the stunned room” where she heard Adhe speak, she “inhale[s] the sweet alms of finch song,” and in the next section of the poem, while she waits to meet the Dalai Lama, she is seated across from a baby:
his face, a laughing moon, round and clean as Buddha’s,
black lashes luxurious as wet feathers.
Like the crows, he can’t stop giggling.
In any language, babies laugh the same.
Yet even this reward is fleeting, because, as Uschuk continues in the same section of the poem, “Sometimes love can / detonate faster than a grenade.”
Uschuk asks in the penultimate section of this long poem, “How can I bring this learning home, back / to the slurry and burn of the everyday? / Back to the greedy chop of political gain.” This quote seems to sum up the impetus for her collection. Uschuk is poet-as-messenger. She “bring[s] this learning home” in her well-crafted verse, and it is unfortunate that more who live in the “slurry and burn of the everyday” won’t find it accessible.
If there is a weakness to Wild in the Plaza of Memory, that’s it—that it is a book probably best appreciated by academics or readers with stamina. The imagery is breathtaking and could be enjoyed by everyone, but the majority of the poems are long (by modern standards of poetry) and dense, making the collection intimidating. I picked up Wild in the Plaza of Memory at a writers’ conference along with, perhaps, a dozen other books. One poetry collection, I finished during a few train rides. Not Uschuk’s.
The beginning of one poem, “In Synch,” is, “Sun stabs the horizon of my dog’s intention / as she leaps at the front door. After she’s / taken a leak, she jumps six feet.” The poem recovers:
lips neat as moist velvet
trolling for Milk Bones and hoping
that I won’t go to work this Monday. Like
any god, I must disappoint her…
But perhaps the high-brow “Sun stabs the horizon of my dog’s intention” is to balance the low-brow—the dog taking a leak.
If Uschuk truly wants to reach the burn of the everyday, she would do well to look for opportunities to dip into language less dense and to consider shaping the collection so that there are more “breaks” of short poems between long poems. Although there’s nothing wrong with intimidating material, few will be able to read the collection straight through. One of my Introduction to Poetry Writing students said of another writer, “His work is amazing, but it makes my head hurt.” As writers, most of us would like to be read, so accessibility is an issue we need to keep in mind.
Uschuk is a recipient of an American Book Award for poetry, and deservedly so, but at ninety-seven pages, Wild in the Plaza of Memory is a long poetry collection, and the poems within are heady stuff. I will reread the book and treasure the poems a few at a time. I hope I can convince other readers to do the same.
Shaindel Beers is Contrary’s Poetry Editor.