A History of Morning Clouds and Contrails by Pam Uschuk (including bonus interview!)
A History of Morning Clouds and Contrails
So you think that you can live remote
from city streets paved with bullet casings,
the beheadings of girls sprayed from cable TV.
While the intricate lace burka of contrails smothers dawn’s blush,
sky blasts dogma to smithereens over mountains
too distant to notice the woman barricaded
down the road at Fox Fire,
her automatic rifle aimed at police.
Each morning, ravens carve black questions
that go unanswered by light. Assailed
by head winds, they sheer, intent on laughter
as they bank nearly upside down to sing.
Sun climbs hand over burning hand
through aspen leaves going to gold bullion
anyone can spend regardless
of what bank they believe in.
Go out, lie in last season’s sinking tomato bed, pull
dead plants around you and spit seeds
at the chemical ooze of contrails jets expel
bisecting the blue intelligence of sky’s water dreams,
crosshatching quadrants between clouds
gauzy as love slipping between finger cracks.
The woman is desperate, mistakes bullets
she jams in her ex-husband’s gun for
her own screams for his incessant fists.
How else can she feel secure? She, too, inhales
toxins saturating sky.
Lean to the warmth of an otter’s last dive
before ice takes the river, the exhausted heart of the land.
What we’ve relinquished in the name of security
to the awful gravity of military science
manipulates what we deep breathe.
Interview with Pam Uschuk by PN's Poetry Editor Patricia Killelea
Some readers may know Pam Uschuk's poetry from her collection One Legged Dancer, Scattered Risks, Crazy Love, which won an American Book Award in 2010. The Michigan-born and raised author of four full-length poetry collections as well as multiple chapbooks, her work has appeared in Poetry, Parnassus Review, Agni Review, Pequod, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, Hunger Mountain, and many others. Now her work comes to Passages North online in the form of "a History of Morning Clouds and Contrails," a poem filled as much with indictments of normalized violence and mechanized greed as it is with crow's wings and rivers turned to ice.
I first came to Uschuk's work through Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, since it regularly features voices from diverse writers, including up and coming Native American voices. I asked her about "A History of Morning Clouds and Contrails," since it takes on some contemporary issues affecting us all: gendered violence, technology use and misuse, as well as the link between voice and environment.
PK: One thing I noticed with this piece is that you are especially concerned with the experiences of girls and women as related to violence, both in the context of the brutal beheading, domestic violence, the armed standoff. This is atypical of representations of these overt forms of violence in the media, which are often focused on men's doings. Could you talk a little bit about your interest in gender and how it intersects with violence in the media and how that relates to your ideas about poetry, both in this piece and beyond?
PU: My interest in women’s issues stems from my own experiences growing up and living in a male-dominated culture. As a young woman, I had male teachers, male bosses, I read mainly male writers, looked at art made mainly by males. The dearth of women artists, writers, explorers, sports heroes, and warriors was disturbingly apparent. This poem is based on a real incident that occurred outside of the tiny town of Bayfield, Colorado where I lived for many years. I imagined a woman, driven to extremes, with a long history of being threatened, belittled and beaten by her ex-husband. I imagined what that scenario would be. She managed to get her ex-husband’s automatic rifle, to shoot him and barricade herself in her house. I remembered, perhaps, the woman prisoner in Wyoming, where I conducted a three-week poetry workshop for women felons. This woman, kind and gentle, had murdered her husband after he knocked out all her teeth. He’d abused her their forty years of marriage.
How can anyone live in our culture without witnessing violence against women? Most murders committed against women are committed by abusive husbands and boyfriends. Indigenous women, as a group, are more often victims of domestic abuse and rape than any other racial of ethnic group worldwide. Thousands of rapes are never reported because women are afraid to come forward, knowing that more often than not perpetrators go free. One of my close college friends was raped on her way back to the dorm from work. The rapist beat her ferociously, breaking her ribs and cheekbone. I was horrified to see her face. Her suffering wasn’t simply from physical wounds. There was something broken inside of her. The rapist was never caught, never brought to trial. I’ve known several women, including my sister, who were victims of physical and emotional domestic abuse. One of my best friends was hospitalized when her then husband beat her so badly, she suffered a skull fracture. More than one friend has been threatened with murder by her husband/boyfriend. The list of these women is long, and it is hungry. My sister-in-law committed suicide just last year in a battered women’s shelter after her long and violent marriage. She had left her husband several times but always went back to him. The cycle of abuse is well documented, but it really hits home when it happens to a family member.
PK: Your poem asks readers to directly confront the ways that we often turn our faces from the stories and realities of struggle around the world. Even in a time when we are all more connected in terms of communication (internet, television, etc.), it seems like there is less and less empathy. In addition to television, you also bring in other forms of technology: guns, airplanes, and military science. Could you talk a little bit about why you decided to address technology in this way, and why (perhaps) you think poetry might be useful for thinking/feeling through our relationships with technology?
PU: Technology as a double-edged sword often finds its way into my poems. It can save us or destroy us—in medicine, at our jobs, in our homes. Technology is just another name for our sophisticated tools. Like this computer I am typing on. I can rearrange sentences, correct grammar, revise my quick thoughts, but the screen is sending out energy that changes me at a cellular level, shaking up my neurons for good and for ill. This screen affects my eyesight and my mental state, but I use it for efficiency. T.V., computers, cell phones have distanced us from our emotions. We are anesthetized to the pain of others because we are bombarded with images of the pain and suffering of others.
We have developed extremely sophisticated weapons, automatic weapons, drones, super-bombs, atomic weapons—tools that can destroy humanity and most life forms on earth. Our psyches have not, for the most part, advanced much further than Neanderthals. In my poems, I can’t fail to address this disparity. Sometimes, it seems the more advanced weaponry we develop, the more we retrograde to brutality. Look at the current administration, the President’s hair-trigger anger, his authorization of bombing raids and dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Syria and Afghanistan without congressional approval. This administration’s threats of nuclear retaliation have me worried. We have a long way to go to advance on an emotional, empathetic, humanitarian level. I feel a need to address this, and so I make a connection between domestic abuse and military science, our advanced weapons of war that could easily destroy us. Violence is violence. Bullying is bullying, abuse is abuse, whether it’s perpetrated on a playground, on the natural world, in a kitchen or on an international scale.
PK: The juxtaposition and overlapping of images of the natural world with those of the human world really drew me to this piece; of course, it's a total illusion that these worlds are separate. I love the way you bring in the ravens as witness, the skies and land as agential and likewise affected by these human happenings. Could you talk a little bit about why you think it's important to bring in non-human perspectives and land relationships into your poetry?
PU: I grew up very close to nature. When my grandmother talked about birds, she talked about them like beloved relatives. She was particularly fond of a wren who nested in her magnolia tree each spring. I grew up on an 80-acre farm in Michigan. We lived in intimate proximity to all the creatures on that land. My father named all his cattle, and they came to them when he called, following him around like puppies. When he plowed his wheat and oat fields, he made islands around rabbit warrens and trees, so that there were islands pocking all his fields. He taught us never to kill anything we didn’t eat. We were imbued with a love of and a respect for the natural world. He taught us that life was sacred.
Whether it was on Michigan lakes or rivers or on that beautiful mother, Lake Michigan, my father loved to fish. My mother’s father also was a fantastic fisherman. From my father and grandfather I learned all manner of things about fish, but, mostly, I learned to respect them. My parents took us often to the woods, taught us the names of creatures, plants and trees. On vacation, we drove to the Upper Peninsula, walked in the woods in Seney Wildlife Refuge, hiked to Tauquammenon Falls, walked Lake Superior’s shores, jumped into its icy waves.
My father’s family were immigrants from Belarus and the Czech Republic. My Czech grandma, Anna, worked with medicinal plants. She was an intuitive healer and psychic. She taught me the names of plants and their medicinal uses. She taught me the names of birds and their habits. For both sides of my family, wild nature was central. Some of my elementary school friends were Chippewa. I learned from all of them to love the land and animals and trees and plants. From both sides of the family, I learned that animals and trees were my relatives.
All those things show up in my poems because they are such an integral part of me. Wild nature is essential to my wellbeing, essential to my work. At our great peril, we ignore or trample on our roots in the wild natural world. When we destroy the natural world, we destroy the most essential part of our psyches. We destroy our hearts. I am very much concerned with maintaining our connection to the natural world. It’s one of the few things that can save us from our own greed and power-seeking ignorance.
You can learn more about Pam's work and Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts here.