Adrie Kusserow is the author of Hunting Down the Monk (BOA Editions,
Ltd.: New American Poets Series, 2002). She has also most recently published in
The Kenyon Review and Anthropology and Humanism. She is a cultural
anthropologist who works with Sudanese refugees in trying to build schools in
war-torn South Sudan. At St. Michael's College in Vermont she teaches courses on
modern-day slavery, refugees and internally displaced people. She and her
husband Robert Lair started the New Sudan Education Initiative.
Their first girls' health sciences school will be built in Yei, South Sudan. The poems below are based on her visit to a Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda.
Skull Trees, South Sudan
Arok, 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.
Perhaps others were near him,
lying in gloves of mud, sucking bits of air through the swamp holes,
mosquitoes biting their lips,
but he dared not look.
What did he know of the rest of South Sudan,
pockmarked with bombs,
skull trees with their necklaces of bones,
packs of bony Lost Boys
roving like hyenas towards Ethiopia,
tongues, big as toads, swelling in their mouths,
the sky pouring its relentless bombs of fire. 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, hip bones—a tea set overturned,
as the hot winds whistled through them
as they would anything, really,
and the sky, finally exhausted,
Published inBest American Poetry 2008; originally published in The Kenyon Review
War Metaphysics for a Sudanese Girl
I leave the camp, unable to breathe,
me Freud girl, after her interior,
she Lost Girl, after my purse,
dark as eggplant,
floating, open, defying the gravity
I was told keeps pain in place.
Maybe trauma doesn't harden,
packed, tight as sediment at the bottom of her psyche,
dry and cracked as the desert she crossed,
maybe memory doesn't stalk her
with its bulging eyes.
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 a colonial God,
and in America, maybe it flavors dull muzungu lives,
each refugee a bouillon cube of horror.
Maybe war can't be soaked up
by humans alone,
the way the rains in Sudan
move across the land,
drenching the ground, animals, camps, sky,
no end to its roaming
until further out, among the planets,
a stubborn galaxy finally mops it up,
and it sits, hushed,
and below, the humans in the north
with their penchant for denial,
naming it aurora borealis.
*Muzungu means "white person" in many Bantu languages of east, central and South Africa
Sudanese Refugee Camp, Northwest Uganda
Our drivers gun insanely over the dusty, red roads,
lurching from pothole to pothole.
Caravan of slick, adrenalized vans,
tattooed with symbols of western aid,
Will on my lap, trying to nurse between bumps,
my hands a helmet to his bobbing skull.
A three-legged goat hobbles to the side
and though we imagine we are a huge interruption,
women balancing jeri cans on their heads, face our wake
of dust and rage as they would any other gust of wind—
Water, sun, NGO.
We arrive covered in orange dust, coughing,
fleet of SUVs parked under the trees,
engines cooling, Star Trekkian cockpits flashing,
alarms beeping and squawking as we zip-lock them up
and leave them black-windowed, self-contained as UFO's.
Behind the gate, we stumble through the boiling, shoulder deep sun,
Will and I trying to play soccer
as a trickle of Sudanese kids cross the road
hanging against the fence, watching the chubby Muzungu boy
I've toted around Africa like a pot of gold.
Three years old, he knows they're watching, so he does a little
his SpiderMan shoes lighting up as he kicks the ball.
Part African bush, part Wild West,
we're based in Arua, grungy, dusty frontiertown,
giant dieseled trucks barrel through, spreading their wake of
obese sacks of grain lying like walrus inside.
I chase Will from malarial puddle to puddle,
white blouse frilled like a gaudy gladiola,
lavish concern for my chubby son
suddenly rococo, absurd.
7 foot giants of the SPLA, huddle together, drinking,
talking Dinka politics, repatriation, the New Sudan,
wives lanky as giraffes, set food on the table and disappear.
In candlelight the men's forehead scars gleam—
I flutter around them acting more deferential than I'm used to,
slowly I'm learning Sudanese grammar—
men, verbs, women, the conjunctions that link them together.
In the thick of rain we walk home,
Ugandans huddled under their makeshift bird cages,
Will now pointing to the basic vocabulary of this road—
dead snake, prickly bush, squealing pig, peeing child.
Three drunk men huddled at a shack
scrape the whiteness off us as we walk by.
Though I don't want to hear it,
though I love Africa,
it starts up anyway, the milky mother cells of my body high-fiving,
my mind quietly repeating the story of my son's lucky birth,
his rich American inheritance.
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
climbing the soggy hills of Kampala, despite the noonday heat,
a posse of hopeful Lost Boys following him.
He, afraid of nothing, really; not even death,
me afraid of everything really, most of all his death.
In the distance, trucks rev up to cross the bush
where Sudanese families perched like kites caught in trees,
wait for the next shipment.
But it's night now,
the three of us inside the cloud chamber of our mosquito net,
the two of them breathing, safe.
Will's nursing again, though he doesn't need to,
swelling like a tick
and though I don't want to love
the sweet mists of our tiny tent home,
the lush wetlands of our lives,
its thick rope bridges and gentle Ugandan hills,
the fat claw of my heart rises up,
fertile, lucky, random
pulsing its victory song.
The pond black and bulging,
ice storm ruins poking from the water
like the stiff feet of, dare I say, fallen soldiers.
Robert still in Sudan,
back in Vermont, the kids and I limp through two weeks of cold rain,
I drape Ana and Will in rain gear
watch the drunken tents run across the field.
Ana plunks her chubby toes into a fleet of tadpoles
cold mud sucking her foot into its mouth.
I drag the branches onto shore,
globs of frog eggs surface like transparent brains,
Ana cupping the dimpled jelly,
the dogs licking it like caviar.
Entranced, she squeezes it
until I tell her to stop
before she crushes the eggs.
I tell myself it's not quite violence but over eager love,
this lust with which they squeeze the living,
smearing the mud onto their own limbs.
But what of this blur
between awe and destruction,
love and violence?
At night, the peepers,
screaming themselves into existence.
Two frogs griplocked onto a female,
her flesh bulging between their swollen fingers.
"They're wrestling," I say, not wanting to reveal the darker side of their
I gingerly pry the males off, Will cheering,
Ana serious and methodic
until she finally dislodges the last one's grip with her twig
and they fall apart wriggling in the grass.
The rains just started in Juba, south Sudan,
making travel, and maybe war, near impossible.
Still my husband pushes a saggy jeep for eight hours
through four feet of mud, a Sudanese boy
lying unconscious in the back seat.
The jeep rocking and lurching
on the only road cleared of mines
as my husband tries to inch it forward, this, his own labor of love,
like birth, like sex, something always tears,
his foot jammed with a thorn as he heaves and sinks
his toenail tearing off, until even he gives up
and forces them to turn back,
still 40 miles from Aliab, the whole village waiting for them,
caught in an outbreak of cholera,
its one river littered with rusty ammunition,
trucks large as elephants lying on their sides.
When Abraham, their Lost Boy,* came home after 18 years,
the elders sacrificed a white cow.
Jump over it, into peace, they cried
while the women tipped their thin necks back,
their whips of ululation uncoiling in the heat.
The frogs, still wiggling on the grass,
Ana clutches the tan-pink female,
despite its eerie mask, she wants to take it home.
I tell her just one night,
then we'll let it go back to its real home—
but the next morning it's done the impossible,
jumped out of its three foot fortress.
I roam the rooms crazed, desperate to find it.
a day later, shrunken in the comer of the bathroom
but still breathing. I race it to the pond,
children confused behind me,
watch it sink, stunned, then lethargically swim away,
still dried and wrinkled, despite its immersion in water,
like Abraham, now more American than Sudanese,
sitting wide-eyed and stiff amidst the wailing and singing.
Robert home, worn out, but safe.
I take a walk to the pond and find—
a tan-pink frog, perhaps the same one,
floating in the water,
I can't tell if it's alive or dead.
I know how I came to be married to this man,
I followed him from country to country,
gripped him hard as the frogs—
Still he did not peel me off, as I have tried to do
with his over eager love, for this gangly, barren country of Sudan.
Who knows what will be torn next,
it's just what happens when you love the world
and you move blindly, but well intentioned,
amidst the irresistible mud.
*The "Lost Boys" refers to the 17,000 children in southern Sudan who fled
their homes in 1987 seeking refuge from the civil war. They walked 1,000 miles
before they finally found protection in a Kenyan refugee camp, Kaukuma. By the
time they arrived there, half of the boys had died from starvation, thirst,
soldiers, lions and bandits. About 3,700 have recently been resettled in