Who can guess which poems become yours? You can be taught to read poetry and you can be taught to analyze – but only some poems place you on the stage of your life, in front of your own footlights. And what is it? – Aesthetic reaction, emotive creation, a phrase or a word that triggers neural firing across your mind as intense as a lightning storm and as subdued as moth’s wings that brush at the edges of consciousness. Don’t analyze, don’t read: listen to the poem, listen deeper into yourself.
Pam Uschuk’s piece “Who Today Needs Poetry” comes dense and roiling in image, chattering with ambiguity, rife with sensory ties to the reader. She starts …
“Who Today Needs Poetry”
Not the California quail clucking for millet
or gold finches glutting on thistle seed, not
last night’s bats jittering between the end
of desert heat and Cygnus rising …
The reader, bound and trapped, flashes that image of the quail working under the field stubble, then makes the springboard in a twist of the mind, a recollection just revealed of that perfect afternoon in late fall, a walk across the stubble of a field with Grandpa before he went mad and became hated. Then the gold finches pecking, a sensory impression of flitting, crazy-moving birds living off the best and worst of the plants, the thistle. The back memory of Scotland’s thistle, the sign of pride and recalcitrance, the dour people who choose as their device only something a finch could love. Then the bats and a wash of ammonia smell from the feet-deep layers of guano in the cave entrance when the reader turned six and visited Carlsbad Caverns for the first time. And the conscious mind gets control again and intones, “Interesting, right away she makes a case that beauty in nature exists outside of poetry. Surely not.” Then Uschuk marches on into the reader’s subconscious …
… nor the hands of the torturer
screaming questions and dunking again
and again the drenched head of the unindicted
into a breathless barrel of ice water, not Congress
that sanctions waterboarding nor
the rubber wheels of a trash can
nattering my neighbor’s drive awake …
What happens to the reader now? A shock, a cold sweep of air on the back of the neck. This is not Wordsworth’s poetry. The poem drives the reader into flashes of remembered television image – torture, maiming, an appalling realization and affirmation. From sixteen to sixty the reader has learned how inhuman a human can be and Uschuk won’t let you forget. And under it like that cold sweep of air on the neck, an emotion unnameable somewhere between sorrow and anger and defeat. Then into the culpability, the US smugness jarring the reader. To believe ourselves exceptional and fall so far below extraordinary: it reawakens the wash of anger when My Lai first cascaded into a young life. And then Uschuk thrusts us into the trivia of a single sensory event, the rumble of trashcan wheels – the reader mutters, “I’ve heard that, I’ve been angry as it woke me, I’ve grinned at the recognition of that sound as I sipped my first cup of coffee.” Coffee taste and smell floods some receptor in the brain. And Uschuk has taught us everything from a simple domestic sound to the brutal do not need poetry. Except what redeems or marks the passing of these realizations? …
… not coffee steam
alerting my cup to the dying syntax of dreams,
not the healing odor of white oleanders
fencing the yard …
Suddenly reflective, the poem shoves the reader into that memory when a stare down into a cup of hot coffee in a chill morning brought out an awakening, the thought that counted, the decision made that changed everything. “I will marry her. I will move to New York. I will always remember last night’s dream, even though it has no words.” And then the exquisite image of the yard shrouded private in stiff vertical bushes, remembered from some child’s morning. But the poem links again, the brain chains in and tells the reader, “The oleander, a poisonous flowering shrub, beloved in the Middle East where nothing goes right and life seldom surfaces above subsistence.” And Uschuk shows the reader, or the reader tolls it off, that poetry matters not, except to chronicle tiny moments of being human, tiny memories of places from childhood, connections surprising and global.
… not cool blackberries
in a glass bowl on the breakfast table, not
a belt unbuckling or the snap of a triggering
device on the homemade bomb about
to blow in a Kabul market, not the black widow’s web
spun to catch wings for her children …
A flicker of the taste of blackberries, a leap to the side and the reader stares down at scratched fingers bloody from picking raspberries. The poem stops, a comeuppance and frisson at the belt unbuckling. Three memories flash at once, firing across the brain like sheet lighting; punishment – a whipping as a child, the stripping of clothes before a shower in a moment of exhaustion and despair, a shared intimacy with two white entwined bodies beneath an electric-blue cloudless sky. But then the reader interprets the buckle as a threat, as a trigger, a way that opens up the six o’clock news to show us blood and scorch and gray brain matter. The reader smells burned nitrate and hears wailing. A camera in the cerebral cortex zooms forward across the market into tight focus and the reader shivers to see a black widow, allegory of a world that poisons its way along, but mutated into a mother image. The reader slides into a snapshot of Mother, busy in the kitchen, the smell of cookies, the feeling of pleasure delayed until the oven chimes.
In the final poetic images Uschuk shows why the reader lives without poetry and should yet need it; to become integrated with self, with memory, with opinion and prejudice, with wisdom and insight and rebirth . . . and with sadness …
the blue burka slipping over a mother’s head,
not a father’s prayer rug clotted
with his son’s blood. No, not any of these.
[This poem appears in Wild in the Plaza of Memory. I thank the Poet for allowing the extensive quotes above.]
Scott Archer Jones is currently living and working on his sixth novel in northern New Mexico, after stints in the Netherlands, Scotland and Norway plus less exotic locations. He’s worked for a power company, grocers, a lumberyard, an energy company (for a very long time), and a winery. He launched a novel last year with Southern Yellow Pine, Jupiter and Gilgamesh, a Novel of Sumeria and Texas. Jupiter was a finalist in four categories of the 2014 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. The next book The Big Wheel, arrived in 2015. A rising tide of people swept away was released by Fomite Press in 2016. All have won FAPA awards, and Jupiter took an IPPY Bronze and was a finalist in two Eric Hoffer Award categories.
Scott cuts all his own firewood, lives a mile from his nearest neighbor and writes grant applications for the community. He is the Treasurer of Shuter Library of Angel Fire, a private 501.C3, and desperately needs your money to keep the doors open.