“We now have access, increasingly, to more and more cultures across the globe, and the result is that restlessness has gone global,” writes Pico Iyer in The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. This quote begins Adrie Kusserow’s new book of poetry, Refuge, and aptly so. That’s not only because the collection thrives on that very access to multiple cultures, or because a few poems therein discuss Tibetan Buddhism, but because Refuge is itself a restless book.
But let me back up: It would be nearly impossible to discuss Kusserow’s poetic work without a bit of background on her humanitarian efforts. A professor of anthropology at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Kusserow is a strong proponent of community-engaged learning. She encourages her students to participate in service work, and she leads by example. Her most recent efforts have taken her to South Sudan, where she works with the second wave of what the book calls “lost boys (and girls) … that fled their homes seeking refuge from the second Sudanese civil war.”
It may come as no surprise that at the core of Kusserow’s poetry is her work as an anthropologist. Refuge is her second book of what she calls “ethnographic poetry,” which is, more or less, a fancy term for anthropologists digesting their research and fieldwork through verse.
But Kusserow’s work is more than simply a creative adjunct to her academic pursuits. Indeed, the amorphous term “ethnographic poetry” may be a slight misnomer here. Refuge is unabashedly autobiographical, and Kusserow’s life, though consumed by research and fieldwork, is not entirely defined by them. She is also a mother, a wife, a professor, a daughter and a Vermonter. All of these roles play a part in the book.
Refuge opens with the poem “Skull Trees, South Sudan”:
Arok Deng, hiding from the Arabs in the branches of a tree,
two weeks surviving on leaves,
legs numb, mouth dry.
When the mosquitoes swarmed
and the bodies settled limp as petals under the trees,
he shinnied down, scooping out a mud pit with his hands
sliding into it like a snake,
his whole body covered except his mouth.
It is this eerie image — of a boy carving out and sliding into a “glove of mud” — that sets Kusserow’s stage. “What did he know of the rest of South Sudan,” she asks in the second stanza (without a question mark).
… South Sudan, pockmarked with bombs,
skull trees with their necklaces of bones,
packs of bony Lost Boys
roving like hyenas toward Ethiopia…
The images in this poem are haunting and evocative, but one does get lost in their meander. As the poem continues, its setting becomes increasingly difficult to determine.
“Of course,” Kusserow continues, “they [the Lost Boys] were / tempted to lie down for a moment / under the lone tree, with its barely shade…” This is where the poem loses track. Is this “lone tree” the same one from the beginning? It can’t be, because in the first stanza we are presented with multiple trees, not a lone one. Plus, we clearly move away from that first setting in the second stanza. But the new tree is assigned the definite article, as if it has already been introduced. Has it? Does this image precede the first one? Is Arok in this tree, in a nearby tree, in the mud, or somewhere else entirely? No matter where and when we are, the question really is, how did we get here?
Perhaps the point of the poem is to make the reader feel as lost as these boys. That would be a remarkable way to begin a book so preoccupied with wandering. But as the reader continues, it’s hard to shake the impression that the poem is just unnecessarily convoluted. In the end, it is not the individual moments that clog up “Skull Trees” but the transitions between them. It’s almost as if the gravity of the images is meant to replace coherent syntax.
These disjunctions occur throughout the book: Many of the poems whose actions take place abroad are carried more by subject matter than by attention to form. In other words, these poems tend to have guts but lack a skeleton.
And the guts themselves offer little substance beyond shock value. Take, for instance, “Attiak Refugee Camp, Northern Uganda,” which offers the image of drunken men in a village, contrasted with their overworked wives. “For the first time in years…,” the poem concludes, “women in the camp report wife beating has declined.”
The problem is that we expect poetry to surprise us in some way, either structurally or emotionally — the latter effect often arising from a subtle emotional insight the reader has not previously had. Failing at structural revelation, these poems often poke at our emotions with images of atrocity, which is quite different from epiphany.
Not that these third-world calamities don’t exist, or shouldn’t be spoken of, or that we shouldn’t do something to help, but Kusserow’s poetry seems more like a call to action than a work of art. Yet, while using a preconceived agenda for artistic inspiration is itself dubious, the result is a necessarily anemic call to action, because poetry simply isn’t the best container for ethnography.
Many poems in the book (e.g., “Milk” and “The Hunger Sutras”) literally meander on the page, weaving across it just as one might when lost and wandering. Though in most cases such erratic indentation would be hard to swallow, there is room for justification in this book, so focused as it is on travel, searching and being lost.
Even so, the more successful poems in Refuge take place in Vermont. “Borders,” for instance, offers the remarkable image of war superseding the constraints of space and time. The poem is addressed to the speaker’s husband, who calls from Africa to say he will drive over the Ugandan border, despite her begging. Their daughter overhears the conversation and later, frustrated, punches her brother, who, later still, kicks their old dog. “And it happens again, / whereby war, however diluted, however transformed, / however many times removed, has spread…”
When the boy kicks the dog, and the dog pees all over the house before retiring to the couch, the speaker wonders if “it will end here, with this dog / … / for now, noble keeper of the flame.” This poem succeeds in its discussion of the complex web of relationships and circumstances that drive us in an endless circle of suffering, across time and space and generations. But it succeeds in a way that “Skull Trees, South Sudan” does not because it takes this complexity, places it in one distinct setting and stays there, thus establishing a firm foundation on which to make a larger point. Moreover, the kernel of the poem’s conflict is concealed in the phone line, and only hinted at. The insight feels genuine and unforced; the poem exists for its own sake.
In Refuge, Kusserow contemplates Christianity, God, Buddhism, India and more. For a book of only 80 pages, it has a vast scope — perhaps to a fault; one could argue that it attempts to encompass too much and lacks an adequate framework to support the diversity. This could be off-putting for readers who expect subtle and sustained meditation in a poetry collection.
On the other hand, one could also contend that Kusserow’s intended meditation is of vastness, restlessness and having no structure. Put differently: In many ways, Refuge meditates on its own faults. Kusserow nudges the reader toward this view in “The Unraveling Strangeness,” whose feverish speaker ultimately lands “with a thump, / into the great American refugee hive to begin / this frantic human work, perpetual manic revival, / stretching your way through the half-light / of this vast unraveling strangeness.”
Refuge leaves room for interpretation. Some readers may come away wishing that Kusserow had better attended to formal constraints; others may find that restlessness is its own justification. As in “Borders,” so continues the conflict.
"Refuge" by Adrie Kusserow, BOA Editions, 81 pages. $16. Kusserow will read from her book on Thursday, June 6, 7 p.m. at Phoenix Books Burlington.