Finding Peaches in the Desert
by Pam Uschuk
Trade Paperback, 96 pages
There is a position in yoga called "the shining heart." This is how Pamela Uschuk has approached her poems. Each poem is struck with the shine of sensuality and mystery. Whether she writes of the sexy quiet of marriage, the daunting thirst of the desert, the secret miracles of a woman's body, or the lacerating political rage that bursts out of many of these pages, Pam Uschuk maintains the light that burns in her chest. All the landscapes here--from the desert's rumpled floor to the poet's own bed to the torture chambers of Chile--are alive and vivid with this light. The book is long over-due.
— Luis Alberto Urrea
These poems are breathtaking, a triumph of language and spirit. . . . This book is a call to contemplation and action, celebration and a righteous anger that can transform the world we inhabit.
— Demetria Martinez
These poems make a sensual garden. The gifts of the earth can be found here: from peaches to lizards to rich earth that soaks up the spilled blood of history. There is the promise of rain and the sky filled with spirits of those we become. There is singing in this garden, and though it might be the end of the world, a new world is coming into view, just over the horizon of these poems.
— Joy Harjo
Texas Books in ReviewReviewed by Gopi Kottoor Nair
Pamela Uschuk captures our imagination with her play of light, intensity of emotions and deft color strokes. Uschuk's play with light and richness of color emerges strongly in lines such as "green hummingbirds and topaz eyes of lizards attend our annointment" ("Finding Peaches in the Desert") or "water is your metaphor / refracting a thousand fingernails of light" ("Watercolorist in the Stream"). A blending of sensuousness and light takes unique shape in th lines, "You can never eat too many, I say and pull / another ripe peach from the desert tree. / It fills my palm, my mouth as I suck / the unhusbanded nectar. / It is as delicious as stealing light. . . ." in "Finding Peaches in the Desert," one of the finest poems in the collection.
Force as vital desert energy is a basic characteristic in many of the successful poems in the collection. Uschuk's poetry is thus rich with the glowing force that drives the green fuse through desert flower, sand dunes, animal forces, and desert fauna. So we read of the scorpion which "glows" with its "caramel body" and the force wiht which "lashes the heart toits stinger tail" as it "shows off the one black vein of poison."
Her poetic talent for close observation reveals itself in the poem "Clean Memorials," where the brute magic of the desert thrives; clean to the bone and wasting nothing,it almost comes up like a revelation of the act of a superior power. Sheer instinctive force is thus a brutal medium that acts throughout lives in the desert. "The Tarantula Hawk drives the limp Tarantula / twice its size across our prickly yard. . . . In the desert nothing is wasted -- each corpse / is stripped to the bone / we must admire this strict attendance to the dead / that leaves such clean memorials to our lives." At once the images and themes thus turn symbolic, allegoric, and surreal.
Uschuk is in her element when she tracks down animal movements to convey their singularities in vivbid, blance, and controlled imagery: "Enormous, their heads / flow in one solid muscle to their shoulders / packed like boulders tapered/ to the sine curve of their narrow hairy asses / as they snuffle across desert / neat tuxedo hooves / ticking the concrete patio." No poet can escape the theme of love in searching for peaches in the desert — love must appear in baked forms. The poet thus talks of the "baked odor of love." At times love gets razor sharp: "Love is sharp and clean as gin." Like desert forces, love can track its victim down to kill and turn it to a whiteness of bone. "Is it any wonder I leapt / far into the charred arms of distances." For Uschuk, love is not as tender as a blade of grass. For her love bears an "electrocuted smile." If love is razor sharp, her lover is the "handsome healing blade."
A book of poems on desert themes often includes poems about hot springs. Uschuk has handled the theme of hot springs to suggest active human relationships. Her poem, "Bathing at Kachina Hot Springs," is thus highly evocative. The opening interests us with unique phrases that create the poem's mood and environment: "We unmoor from our bodies, anemones healing in the thermal stream." Thereafter, the poem is a reflection on the transience of life: "How many ways there are / to die then / the upswing to survive." The thread of ephemeral life and the patterns of its delightful weavings in pain are delicately broughout in the poem, "Through the Dark, A Brilliance," where the amaryllis is "its own shepherdess / who even now sprouts the stalk / whose bud will become / the trumpeting blossom, a brilliance / that is a surprise sustaining itself / through months of dark mysterious longings / your careful hands would learn."
Uschuk definitely can in her own words "whirl words in a clear tumbleer of any poem." Her poems are "slick as volcanic clay, fevered as the assassination of stars." They are reich, red corpuscles, dynamic and active with life-sustaining vigor. Finding Peaches in the Desert is definitely a collection of accomplished verse.
Colorado Springs Independent
Pamela Uschuk's poetry is sensual, luscious and tasty. You can sink your teeth into the beginning of any poem and finish satisfied. After reading the title poem "Finding Peaches in the Desert," I felt much like the I from that same poem:
You can never eat too many, I say and pull another ripe peach from the desert tree. It fills my palm, my mouth as I suck the unhusbanded nectar. It is delicious as stealing light, such innocent grace, a holiday ffrom history and eternity.
This book is a peach you can't put down. From the first poem, I slowly devoured each following page until my mind was sticky with the vivid fruits of Uschuk's labor. A farmgirl from the Midwest, Uschuk received her MFA from the University of Montana and currently resides in Arizona. Living in the desert has given her a plethora of passionate subject matter to address, such as discovering and understanding the deadly scorpion in "Scorpion Season:"
The scorpion and I are not so different, carrying poison to protect us, plagued by our common baggage of action and consequence. I freed him, knowing such defenses are necessity for those who live by thunderlight and moon.
In "Calendar of Thirst, Uschuk explores the hot, dry desert weather:
It's the rainy season and it's raining dust. Across the valley, dust devils sway like drunks. Fahrenheit breaks a hundred and ten. Tucson sweats.
I feel that Uschuk is speaking my thoughts — vast, arid, Colorado thoughts. She is earthy, honest, no-nonsense and possesses the amazing ability to work everyday language into surprising twists. In "Late Winter Storm" she says:
No one bets on the cockfight of wind and snow.
Immediately, I picture the violent wind whipping sharp snow flakes into funnels and spinning them through the streets, skies and deserts and realize that neither force will win, but will just wear each other down.
One of the most touching poems in this collection is "Parole." It is an elegy for Andres Herendez, a maximum security prisoner who was in a writing class Uschuk taught at the prison. She takes the reader on a heart-wrenching, raw journey through her knowledge of Herendez -- from his history as a poor Puerto Rican boy who went to jail at 16 after being abandoned by his father, to his lonely death from AIDS.
As you lay dying, the warden denied my every request, denied all visitors but the distant rags of your family too destitute to make such a trip, denied even get well cards. After all, you were maximum security.
After reading this book, you will not be left bereft of images. Each line of poetry builds to the next, breaking in unexpectedly perfect places only to climax in a scent, sound or visual that takes you to the exact place Uschuk wants you to be. She is passionate and political, spirited and thoughtful, accessible and alive. She is the voice of everyone, using a language truly her own, to paint pictures of a world full of horror and promise.
ParabolaSummer 2001Reviewed by Gregory McNamee
Deserts can be forbidding, even terrifying places, where the land and its inhabitants, human and otherwise, lie exposed to the harshest of elements. They can also be places of extraordinary beauty, places in which that very exposure yields a kind of spiritual cleanliness; not for nothing were so many of the world's great religions born in those dry, brown places.
Pamela Uschuk, a poet who lives in southern Arizona, finds both terror and wonder in the arid lands in which the poems of Finding Peaches in the Desert are set. One one page, Uschuk is "struck dumb by sun cauterizing / the Sonoran sky that flings its blue skirt / all the way across the ripe hip of Mexico"; on another, she finds herself in the rare landscape of an oasis, "a gorgeous luminaria of river shade"; on still another, she finds a center of grace in a pair of Harris's hawks "ripping red chunks of pigeon / from thin bones," exemplifying the world's often violent way of conducting its business.
Uschuk's poems are populated by desert creatures by hawks and tarantula hawks (wasplike insects that prey on ground-dwelling beetles and arachnids, hence their name), by lizards and javelinas, by luna moths, snakes, praying matises, and kingbirds. They make their appearance not as easy symbols, in the way of so much poetry in which animals figure, but as actors on a brightly lighted stage, unself-consciously doing what they are supposed to do. Uschuk respectfully observes their ancient ways, even as ants take up residence in her cupboards and mockingbirds trouble her waking dreams with their raucous cries.
Her poems are also full of the human presence, as loved ones her husband and stepdaughter, relatives living and dead, a host of observant friends share "the desert's vast horizon" with her, wandering through dry creek beds and over jagged mountains, waiting for rain, reveling in the desert's silence, sharing pain and passion, doing what humans are supposed to do.
Deserts being places of reverie and awe, it is altogether appropriate that another class of characters find a home in Uschuk's collection: namely, an assortment of gods and goddesses. Some of these are the emotions personified, as with Uschuk's invention of Goddess Weepy Eye, the patron saint of conflict-born insomnia. Some are deities of nature such as the moon, for whom, in a striking turn, Uschuk professes love "as I love the tarantula / tippling from its half-eaten prey." Still others come from the classical pantheon, so that Ariadne and Athena, Cupid and the unfortunate Bull of Minos are transported into the heat-dazzled landscape of Arizona, there to converse with the ghosts of Emiliano Zapata, Billy the Kid, and Cochise.
That landscape lends itself nicely to myth-making, and Uschuk spins a few myths of her own in ways that seem altogether in character for all concerned. She is a skilled traveler in dry lands, a knowing observer of animal and human ways, gifted with a sure eye and the master of an idiom charged with meaning and feeling. Slender but far from meager, Finding Peaches in the Desert is a sturdy and striking collection that merits a wide audience.
Bloomsbury ReviewJan/Feb 2001
In a celebratin of love in her adopted desert homeland,
Struck dumb by sun cauterizing the Sonoran sky that flings its blue skirt all the way across the ripe hip of Mexico,
the women in the title poem of Pamela Uschuk's exceptional debut collection of poetry, Finding Peaches in the Desert,, share fruit "to alter the news." Passionate and at times outraged, exuding an unabashed sensual confidence, and as probing as a tarantula hawk dissecting its prey, Uschuk writes with a remarkable urgency and clarity to not only alter the headlines but compel us to reexamine the everyday marvels of the desert and the "long sting of history."
Like poet Richard Shelton, Uschuk writes from a commanding sense of place in the Sonoran Desert, mixing her own domestic passions and quandaries, where scorpions await in bathtubs and
Redtailed Hawks sliced sunset, talons knifing each other's spiral dive, screeching fights we finally recognized as mating cries.
Her strongest verses, in fact, ar rooted in land and water, among women who feed carrots to havelinas or "unmoor from our bodies, anemones healing in the thermal stream." With a powerful imagery reminiscent of Denise Levertov, Ushuk also looks beyond the borders of love, "without the comfort of stars," and finds poems "slick as wet clay" among the tortured stories of souls from Guatemala, Chile, and Nigeria. In the poem "It is Precisely" she proclaims:
that I can watch the thousand bullets burn mouths into the singing backs of girls and boys crushed with their questions by the tanks and bombs of the world without prison walls blinding my heart that witnesses the long sting of history II cannot close my eyes.
With this passionate aching throughout, Uschuk concludes a beautiful tribute to her ailing father, in "The Night My Father Became an Aborigine":
When the chalked old man makes his final hop into the circle of dancers, it is my father I see. Relieved of his wheelchair, the deafening bellow of the oxygen tank, he is all electric leap, his bare feet slapping the parquet floor, his voice raised like a dingo's ululating through the night. It is such a beautiful song I hum along, warmed by the distant fire and stories where there is no real end tto the dreamtime or the dreamers.
With these new collections, Uschuk and Barker mark themselves as two of the most insightful and spirited poets today.
About This Author
Read more about
Buy This Book : $16