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Adrie Kusserow–”Refuge”–Travel Lyricism Traveling Between Cultures

Challenging political clichés, clashing voices, and employing chameleonic speakers—“No one wants to challenge your story,/ you who never should have left Burma” outrageously says one of them to an émigré (who in her turn actually outwits a system ready to assimilate her with an obtuse if not downright derogatory generosity)—Adrie Kusserow’s latest collection speaks in a both complex and enticing fashion of Africa and Asia, war and the aftermath, traveling and immigrating, and the reshaping of the familial in a globalized world of enmeshed yet infinitely specific locales.

In going through this book, one is impressed with two complementary features—the remarkable variety and, at the same time, the pervading persistence of certain themes and motifs.  “Mud,” for instance, is one of the latter, a recurrent, strong and complex presence in the poems—“he [Arok Deng, a Sudanese hiding from the Arabs in the branches of a tree] shinnied down, scooping out a mud pit with his hands/ sliding into it like a snake” reads the opening poem (“Skull Trees, South Sudan”), a similar image being later on used in a much less threatening context for what happened to the speaker’s son playing in the mud in Vermont—“cold mud sucking his foot into its mouth” (“Mud (Vermont/South Sudan)”) while her daughter gets to know the world “through April’s black mud” in a poem that typically travels between the two places in the US and Africa, while staying urgently familial.  “Mud” also conjures compelling images from the traditional, familial, and political life of South Sudanese communities, as the speaker’s husband’s desperate attempts to save a boy from the cholera decimating a village are put on hold by “tracks large as elephants lying on their sides.”

Other poems fail where “Mud” succeeds though—such as “Borders,” in which the daughter jabbing the son “hard in the ribs” inspires in the speaker an unconvincing repetitive series of cause-effect pairings in which the family scene looks disproportionately irrelevant compared to the (inter/trans)continental one: “[her] anger spilling red down her face and chest.// And it happens again,/ whereby war, […]/ whereby the suffering of Kenya begets Uganda,/ begets my husband/ begets me, begets Ana, begets her brother…// Later in the mudroom, getting ready for school/ I see Will kick our tiny old mutt.”

Still, the latter is an exception, and after just a couple of pages, a totally recovered speaker resumes bombarding the reader with powerful images and figures, as the opening of a secondary school for girls (again, in) a Sudan described as a “post-war nursing home” occasions grim reflections on the women “stirring and tending/ […] their daily cauldrons of meat and blood,/ the war still raw inside them,” and as the ubiquitous mud is equated with being devoured and then birthed again by the foreign land—“whole jaws of road gaping open,/ van rebirthing through mud hole after hole.”

Here, actually, and even more so, in “Milk” and “Young West Meets My East (India)” Kusserow powerfully and convincingly combines the foreign political and cultural, with the most private and familial.  In the former she both stages and suppresses the worries and sometimes even deepest fears about her son and her husband against a Sudanese refugee camp backdrop, where while “Will on my lap, [is] trying to nurse between bumps” with his mother’s hands symbolically protecting him like “a helmet to his bobbing skull,” the locals witness the humanitarian convoys as well as the tragedies of war or the weather; and where she labors behind her “dogged Dutchman” “he afraid of nothing, really, not even his death/ me afraid of everything really, most of all his death.”  Kusserow’s poems are once in a while pierced by such sudden pangs of fear and vulnerability, yet it is their pertinent verisimilitude and confessional genuineness that ensure the credibility of the unrestrained assertions of vitality—and, yes, happiness!—that follow, a tone so rare in our jaded contemporary poetics: “Will’s nursing again […]/ swelling like a tick/ and though I don’t want to love/ […]/ the lush wetlands of our lives/ […]// the fat claw of my heart rises up,/ fertile, lucky, random/ pulsing and hissing its victory song.”

Besides the confessional-testimonial-political tune, Kusserow masterfully plays three other scores in the book—portrayals, allegories, and travel poems in which the speaker (at least apparently) assumes an omniscient narrator’s voice.

All of the above are of course intertwined, as one would expect things to be in a coherent collection; they are all political, to start with, (but then, well, isn’t all poetry political?), particularly in the sense that being deeply familiar with African realities and at the same time keeping a sharp eye on American life (also as in the life of African and Asian immigrants to the US and its myriad of cultural and political implications), the poet is able to drop every now and then brief but acutely perceptive bits of social-cultural critique while mainly focusing on a particular character, event, or image.  Kusserow is in this respected one of the best contemporary illustrations of Simon Cooke’s recent critical assessments regarding cultural self-reflexivity as “a component of, rather than a substitute for, engagement with the other.” (Traveller’s Tales of Wonder, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, p 36)

In fact, not only are these forms and perspectives intertwined, but like in other aspects of Kusserow’s poetry, they are so in the most unexpected and ingenious (and therefore relevant) ways.  In one of the portrayal poems, for instance, “Dinka Bible,” whose epigraph is a reenactment of the empty tomb scene in the Gospels, now in an African context, a Sudanese boy (relevant gender translation of the myrrh-bearers) who finds his parents’ home burnt to the ground, when asked by “two figures in white” (again, relevantly ironic transposition of the angels into [white-coat wearing and/or racially white] relief workers) why he is weeping, replies “[T]hey have taken away my family, and I do not know where they have laid them.”  But unlike the biblical scene, the figures in white remain silent.

In the poem proper, the “lost boy” already has an American host mother who, when powdered doughnuts are offered to the congregation after the church service, “wipes the sugar off his mouth,/ marking him as her own.”  Some “fat ladies smelling like diapers [noticing he’s sweating heavily…] pat his damp skull” making him catapult “out of the land of good intentions/ and throw up outside.”  As is typical of Kusserow’s poetics, the portrayal and the funny-cynical and ridiculous-sad story of Achak’s new life in America equally involves flashes of the quotidian that are so much the more (culturally) pungent since taken through the eyes of a foreigner.

But the poet saves best for the last.  The host mother’s coming outside to check on the vomiting boy triggers in the latter a stunning insight into (some of) the muzungus’ (white people’s) relationship with the landscape, the God of the Gospels, and the other.  As the poem goes full circle and back to the image in the epigraph, the white woman is perceived as typically missing the mystery of the boy’s otherness, along with two other huge (‘familiar’) mysteries, the one of the resurrection, and of the nature around her: maybe even the stone that once rolled away from the door of the holy sepulcher actually just tried to escape the blank eye of certain onlookers…

 

And he knew how lonely Mary must have felt

when she came upon Jesus’ empty tomb,

this pockmarked country, cold as moon,

the stones rolled back from the muzungu’s eyes,

the black hole everywhere.

 

In the second genre, her characters are God, the Buddha, and even Mother Theresa, always “looking down” (from heaven) on a Yoga class, on lonely and tormented people still “instinctively opening their mouths/ toward sky” “like small birds,” or on an orphanage in Calcutta.  Just as the portrayals and the travel poems say unexpectedly relevant things about the familiar while focusing on the (cultural, racial, and topographical) other, in these poems the grim or ‘trivial’ reality is both minutely examined and placed in a surprising perspective as the heavenly observers find themselves in the most phantasmagoric situations.  In “Hunger Sutras,” for instance, both God and Buddha look down on the earth from “the hospital for sick, endangered, and arrested gods.”

In another poem, God has spent 300 years in solitary and is now taken to the lethal injection chamber.  When the omniscient “He” comically asks the guardian what happened, she replies (note the relevant gender markers) that “the New Age arrived, the Old Testament stamped out.”  When he is allowed one last look on “the whirling cacophony” of the Earth, he spots a yoga class where “they were all women” which “was no surprise,” given that all women “did was bitch bitch bitch/ toward the end of His rule.”  A shrewd and complex satire, with a humor of rather the absurdist variety, and, of course, harsh (post)feminist criticism of long-expired male-centered mysticism.  The keenest irony though comes at the end of the poem where, right before dying, finally humanized (not through the mystery of incarnation, but by being… turned on) by the fascinating spectacle of the women’s shifting postures and undogmatic religiousness, God begins “to unfurl,” thus escaping his rigid authoritativeness and embracing at last (his?) creation.

Yet, the manifold irony brings about more than just that—what is more impressive than the spectacle God watches, is the very spectacle of God watching, his amazement at the  “sacrotropic” “sea plants” women are, the drama of his own reactions and reflections, as followed by the truly omniscient sensibility of the poet.  The architecture of the satire thus allows Kusserow to indulge in a cosmic visionarism refused nowadays to any ‘orthodox’ Dante or Milton, and the reward for her shrewdness is access to a poetic beauty that most contemporary poetry does not even dream of:

 

…His mouth would sag when they began to pray,

slow and fluid as underwater ballet,

their bodies like tendrils curling up and out,

deep sea vines reaching, uncurling like fiddleheads in unison.

 

“No one told Him they would look so graceful” reads a line before the above quoted excerpt.  No one, but the poet who simply has the guts to do it—and just did.

Last but not least, in the third class of poems, Kusserow masterfully describes exotic locales that in the progress of the poem become the stage for multi-leveled cultural interactions.  In “Beneath the Sky, the Longing (Thimphu, Bhutan),” the “lust for the West [that] huddles like fog” is obliquely reciprocated by the “schools of ghostly expats” who cannot helping coming back to the same “density of longing,” but what the locals and Westerners share is also paradoxically what separates them, the “hard kernel of desire where the bulky psyche chips its tooth.”

In “To Market, to Market (Dharamsala, India, Tibetan Government in Exile),” the Himalayan boys turn “the switch of authenticity ‘on’” for the Western girls studying Buddhism, ready to deliver in an exchange in which it is hard to be sure exactly which of the parties is the commodified one, since the girls themselves are also “ready to fling the cramped purse of ‘the self’/ onto the street and give themselves to everything.”  The contemporary condition—as described by Susan Sontag in At the Same Time and by James Buzard as the “meanwhile problem” (both analyzed in Simon Cooke’s above quoted book, 53-54)—is the very substance of such poetry.  As the American girls get home with the “opiate” of their exotic ‘spiritual’ souvenirs, the boys in Dharamsala dream of their own myths (most likely of immigration and success).  The picture is ironical, but not only, as contemporaneity (the complexity of which is rendered, paradoxically, by the time difference as well) involves, along with the teenagers connected across continents through commodification and, therefore, miscommunication, vicariously living in a delusive elsewhere, the contrapuntally simultaneous and elemental image of the Dalai Lama that “rises to meditate at 3 A.M.”

In probably the most accomplished poem in this third category, “Christmas Eve, Kampala, Uganda,” the sordid atmosphere of the god-forsaken celebrating “compost city” brings HIV infected soldiers, abusive husbands, western pop music and muzungus “working off their Western guilt” all together under an anti-post-romantic and postcolonial hungover moon, “creamy and subdued,” inspiring not a poet’s ethereal vision but a drunken man’s masturbation.  Still this all ends with a ceremonial invocation, an almost mystical effusion—and just as in “Milk” we have encountered a direct assertion of optimism and joy, here we have a vibrant invocation infused with praise and prayer, ecstatic and enthusiastic in the etymological sense of the world (‘filled with/thoroughly experiencing the sacred’), again so rare nowadays.  Kusserow’s speakers have actually been in hell, and therefore can uniquely sing paradisiacal chants as well.

The great advantage of such poetry is that while delving into the grisly grimness, chronic dereliction, extreme dangers, and sometimes overwhelming horrors of our contemporary world (conventionally and quotidianly [as the poet puts it somewhere else, on “this glossy CNN planet”] always out there, and afar), it probes and expresses a genuineness that will also afford it a ‘pure’ solemnity otherwise virtually impossible in mainstream lyric poetry.  What one encounters in this verse is posthuman humanity and postpoetic lyricism and hymnalism:

 

…and the drunken man

sitting in a corner

working his cock into a frenzy

as his groans stretch wide with defeat

into some warm swatch

of the moon’s sweet milk.

 

Oh holy tenderness of this mute misty planet,

bless the fragile, harried nests

the tired and hungry build.

 

—MARGENTO

 

[Adrie Kusserow. Refuge. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2013]

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