Of course they were tempted to lie down for a moment,
under the lone tree, with its barely shade,
to rest just a little while before moving on,
the days passing slyly, hallucinations
floating like kites above them
until the blanched bones lay scattered in a ring around the tree,
tiny ribs, skulls, hipbones—a tea set overturned
(“Skull Trees, South Sudan”)
Adrie Kusserow’s second poetry collection, Refuge, opens with a short preface concerning the 20,000 Lost Boys (and Girls) who “fled their homes seeking refuge from the second Sudanese civil war. They walked 1,000 miles before they finally found protection in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Half of them died along the way.”
Introduced through this lens, one is prepared for their stories of devastation and resilience. These poems, however, are often from the perspective of an anthropologist, locating us in Northern Uganda, Bhutan, India, South Sudan, and back in Vermont. The speaker of this collection and her family, a husband and two young children, become familiar to the reader as do the atrocities they witness. Kusserow writes:
Once inside the body, does war move up or down?
Maybe the body pisses it out,
maybe it dissipates, like sweat and fog
under the heat of yet another colonial God?
(“War Metaphysics for a Sudanese Girl”)
This passage suggests the cadence and construct of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” though the diction is all her own. Here, Kusserow presents her awareness and self-consciousness to the reader. She often writes the familiar as though alien. Parking her car in the refugee camp, she describes the scene as:
fleet of SUVs parked under the trees,
engines cooling, Star Trekian cockpits flashing,
alarms beeping and squawking as we zip-lock them up
and leave them black windowed, self-contained as UFOs.
Refuge transitions between intimate scenes and poems written from a distance, where the poet’s self is removed and the Dinka people are more fully realized. In “Skull Trees, South Sudan” (For Atem Deng), the reader finds:
packs of bony Lost Boys
roving like hyenas toward Ethiopia,
tongues, big as toads, swelling in their mouths . . . .
That last image, delivered with Anne Sexton tartness, is horrific. We experience their pain but not their individuality. To this end, Kusserow challenges the reader. Concerning the Lord’s Resistance Army and the persons therein, Kusserow writes,
In the lineup, girls choose a husband by picking a shirt
from a pile on the ground.
In the bush, they fetch water, assemble the guns,
carry the commander’s chairs, soda, cassava.
(“Lord’s Resistance Army”)
This list of details is affecting as she presents the reality of the girls’ lives without distracting or obvious editorializing.
Regarding the speaker’s relationship to East Africa, it is revealed that the writer and her husband are involved there professionally. Consequently, South Sudan appears through the outlook of a marriage as well:
My husband drops into bed, dragging a thick cloak of requests.
All day I’ve labored behind him, toting our clueless muzungu,*
watching him, dogged Dutchman in his rubber clogs.”
Boldly, the speaker focuses intently on her family with charged, maternal sentiments. At an airport in India, “a near riot starts over who will board” after an avalanche has closed the highways. The narrator pushes her daughter forward,
like an offering,
blond hair, planetary eyes,
and we’re shuffled by the stewardess
to the head of the crowd
while the lines of weary men look on
and accept their fate.
(“Young West Meets My East”)
The daughter, central to this collection (as is the son), remains protected and loved amidst trauma. Described as the “little blonde one” toting around her “American Girl doll” she remains a complicated if not problematic figure in this book. The onus of The American Girl enterprise existing within a collection on post-civil war Sudan is surely not lost on Kusserow. She makes this imbalance known to the reader.
Hunger and nurturing sit side by side, unevenly, in Refuge; one side never reconciles the other. She considers the three-year-old she nursed and “toted around Africa like a pot of gold.” She writes in graduated lines:
I chase Will from malarial puddle to puddle,
white blouse frilled like a gaudy gladiolus,
lavish concern for my chubby son
suddenly rococo, absurd
This collection grips the reader with jaggedness, inequality, horror, and the tenderness of nursing one’s children. A Vermont mother watches her son and daughter play in the stream having seen a Sudanese woman lying in the road. Ethnographic poetry has the capacity to hold the enormity of war and a fight between siblings. Here, refuge exists both for war torn nations and the narrator and her family.
*Muzungu means “white person” in East Africa (note Kusserow’s)