Review by Matthew W Larrimore
Most readers of poetry would forgive you for claiming there are too many great poets to have read every one. But after reading Blood Flower, you may not forgive yourself for not knowing the name Pamela Uschuk sooner. Blood Flower is Uschuk’s seventh collection and second since winning the 2010 American Book Award for Crazy Love.
The forty-four poems of the collection, which range 110 pages, are broken into three sections Blood Flower, The Trick, and Talk About Your Bad Girls. The theme of family runs strongly through the three sections though they are independent enough to work as chapbooks in and of themselves. Uschuk writes about heritage and origin in a way that recalls some of our great Native American writers, Joy Harjo or Lucy Tapahanso, for instance, but her blend of Russian and American backgrounds bring the writing a new perspective.
The other theme at play in the collection is a feminist one. The collection does include prominent male figures, Father, Grandfathers, and a brother; but Mother, Grandmothers, and her sisters, related by blood or not, are also represented and celebrated in the collection. Those poems in particular seem to crackle with a vibrancy and energy. At those times, the narrator seems to be speaking for more than just herself.
“Red Menace,” the 2nd poem in the collection, is nicely representative of much of the work in the first section. It quickly positions the speaker and her family, to which the poem is dedicated, as cultural outsiders in their 1950s Mid-Western community, despite her father being a member of the military. The poem demonstrates the friction present in what people think of as an idyllic time and place. While this particular poem and others occasionally sacrifice some poetic ornamentation in order to reveal the narrative, it is usually a worthy trade off.
Later poems in the section, like “Red Cat Near Old Snow,” nicely demonstrate the poet’s command of technique, enchanting the reader with their use of sound, imagery, and meter. The opening lines of that poem particularly shine.
In the milk-shuttered light of knowing
What’s to come, of being
What’s passed before,
Snow is shorn close to ice, fire sinks in the stove.
No breezed branches,
Just locks and the cat, red tabby,
its white patches passing like snow,
The multiple uses of the sibilant F and S sounds contrasted against the liquid W sounds, then combined with the simple but easily called-on images of ice, fire, the stove, a red tabby cat, and the snow, deftly demonstrate Uschuk’s poetic technique. The section is further enhanced with control of rhythm via the use of carefully phrased end stopped lines.
The second section The Trick, focuses tightly on war and violence. The section is one carefully crafted poem after another formed from the memories of the personal consequences of World War II, Vietnam, the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, and the more recent bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The narrator deftly brings the personal sacrifices of Fathers, Brothers, and the young men who could easily be sons, together with what it means to those who love them at home. It explores not only what it means to lose loved ones physically to violence but what surviving the psychological violence that armed conflict inflicts on all its participants means; and she accomplishes this without invoking melancholy. In “Remembering the Tet Offensive as Troops Ship Out for a U.S. Attack on Iraq,” the speaker makes poignant connections between the two wars, utilizing harsh and ugly imagery that form a commentary about the waste of such conflicts. Then as the poem concludes, it reminds the reader that it’s not just the ones who go off to war that suffer loss….
their belief as each, generation before them
that they will fight the war to end all wars.
Behind them, wives and girlfriends wave
small American flags that break
in the brittle wind.
Even in this narrative ending the reader can sense the poet’s handiwork. The phrase, “small American” followed by the line break at the verb “break” makes it known in no uncertain terms that the speaker’s national pride does not color her perception. Then ending on the image / idea of “brittle wind” serves to enhance the palpable loneliness created by the poem. These are masterful poems of keening loss.
In the third section of the book, the focus shifts again. In “Talk About Your Bad Girls,” the poems feature family and kinship and they become a fierce force in the section. A few pieces focus on specific women dear to the narrator. These poems not only lament and celebrate the trials and joys of being a woman in a patriarchal society but also reveal that powerful relationships don’t necessarily rely on blood ties.
As the book closes there is a touching piece about burying a pet wolf named Happy. Then the last poem, Faith, is a memoriam of the poet Regina de Cormier. The speaker’s love for the poet comes through clearly and lets her verbalize wishes for all women. In the penultimate stanza:
I send this poem, a charm
to shatter weather and distance
for all women who write
against the silent ear of the world,
a charm of blood and memory
to break the indifferent blade
to tonight’s moon.
faith is as simple as dreams. …
The words speak for themselves. It is a fitting closing for the section and entire collection of heartfelt poems.
Blood Flower is a remarkable collection of poems that not only demonstrates Uschuk’s prowess as a poet, but also conveys important socio-cultural messages. If you are a reader of poetry, this book should be in your collection.