In Review

Poetry and Opacity

By Michael Jackson

Adrie Kusserow is an accomplished anthropologist and poet—a dual identity that imparts to her writing an earthiness and immediacy that is at once deeply moving and ethically provocative. Though the poems from her latest collection, Refuge, are replete with arresting images, ethical questions are raised at every turn about how we in the global North should respond to the suffering of those in the global South. Some of us declare that these regions are of no concern to us, morally or politically, while others are pained by media images of starving families in makeshift camps on an arid plain but plead compassion fatigue when asked to intervene. Some of us go out of our way to make a difference, though we are haunted by the realization that we can never do enough. Adrie Kusserow and her husband, along with some of the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan, resettled in Vermont, founded a nonprofit organization to help refugee girls attend schools in South Sudan, and Adrie makes frequent trips to East Africa, mixing ethnographic research with humanitarian work. For her, the suffering of others cannot be kept at bay.

How quietly they land.
bits of global sorrow accumulating like snowfall
as I teach a class, attend a meeting,
make a cup of tea.

What if early man wasn’t designed
for this downpour of international horrors?

Or maybe human evolution slogs through any weather,
the nimble human psyche adapting,
the violence at first like lightning to the brain,

then a stinging blizzard, and now a light rain,
the damp, guilty silence left behind as we move almost
from Haiti to Google, Facebook to Sudan.1

Adrie’s poems broach one of humanity’s oldest moral dilemmas. In the book of Genesis, Cain is a tiller of the ground, Abel a keeper of sheep. Cain offers a portion of his harvest to God; Abel offers the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof. God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but ignores Cain’s. In a fit of jealousy, Cain kills his brother. To God’s question, “Where is thy brother Abel?” Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The question still oppresses us. Do we have the same kind of responsibility to strangers that we have for our kith and kin? And where, if anywhere, do we draw the line between those we are obliged to care for and protect and those to whom we owe nothing?

And it happens again,
whereby war, however diluted, however transformed,
however many times removed, has spread,
whereby the suffering of Kenya begets Uganda,
begets my husband,
begets me, begets Ana, begets her brother . . .2

The question of what we owe others cannot be separated from the question of what we owe ourselves, since questions of responsibility make their appearance as both social norms and personal conscience—externalized and internalized forms of the superego. On the one hand we speak of taking ownership of things we have said or done, as if we alone were responsible for our words and deeds. This assumption underlies our condemnation of those who rationalize their hurtful or murderous actions by claiming that they were acting under orders or under duress, and the same reasoning informs Sartre’s notion of bad faith—our habit of blaming others for choices for which we alone were responsible. On the other hand, however, we acknowledge that human societies are made up of individuals who are socialized to accept the prevailing ethos, whether it is capitalist or communist, Islamic or Christian, Buddhist or Animist, autocratic or democratic. From this perspective, our freedom to act or think autonomously may be very limited. But, for Hannah Arendt, life unfolds in the indeterminate or potential space between actors, and between our subjective imperatives and the imperatives of the world in which we live. Accordingly, our identities are unstable, multiple, and in flux, leading us to do things we did not think we had it in us to do, and obliging us to constantly rethink the very notion of who we are. At the same time, all human action is conditioned by a plethora of often competing influences, interests, and persuasions that are the outcome of previous experience, and that have ramifications that go far beyond what any actor knows, desires, imagines, says, or does. The “simple fact,” Arendt observes, is that “we don’t know what we are doing when we are acting,” and we can neither grasp, practically or intellectually, the manifold influences that bear upon us or the future implications of what we do.3

Because human action always occurs within fields of interaction that Arendt calls the “subjective in-between,” whatever anyone does or says is immediately outstripped by what others do or say in return. Every action calls out a reaction that “strikes out on its own and affects others.”4 This is the force field that Foucault speaks of as “governmentality, where power is not an intrinsic property of persons or institutions but finds expression in the space between acting subjects.”5 Obvious ethical questions are entailed by this view, since if one can never know exactly the extent to which one’s actions make a difference to the way things are, or the extent to which one is responsible for what one does, it becomes difficult to decide, for example, if or when one should be condemned for one’s failings or praised for one’s good deeds.

A moth enters Adrie’s tent one night. She tells her daughter to leave it be lest she harm it by catching it, yet moments later the moth flies into the “the bright light of the generator / whose haggard lungs we pump each night.”6

Is there a connection between this paradox and Arendt’s seemingly contradictory views that while Adolf Eichmann should be condemned for his mindless devotion to Hitler’s vengeful cause, we are largely creatures of our times and circumstances? Yet, as she notes in The Human Condition, this contradiction is in the very nature of our humanity, for we are simultaneously singular beings, whose life experiences are unique, and members of a class, a culture, and a species with common traits and shared values. Despite the fact that we share with many others the same conditioning, each one of us responds differently to these external conditions, and it is this indeterminate relationship between what we are made of and what we make of what we are made of that defines the space of human freedom.7 Eichmann’s fault was, therefore, not so much his thoughtlessness, but his choice to embrace an ideology and seek membership in a political party where one was excused from exercising independent thought, and in which all one had to do was follow the leader, go along with the crowd, one’s mind so focused on the means that the end was never questioned.

The brutalities that occur in these spaces of exception and states of emergency from which moral and legal constraint and conscience have been purged, and in which “anything goes,” are not the focus of Adrie Kusserow’s poems. Rather, it is the victims of such brutalities—in the Sudanese civil war and the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda—that figure in her chronicles of dispossession and loss.

He remembers joining
a black river of boys,
their edges swelling and thinning
as they wound their way
over the tight-lipped soil, sun stuck to their backs.
He remembers dust mushrooming up
around a sack of cornmeal as it thudded
and slumped over, like a fat woman crying in the sand.8

Yet every observation implies an observer, and Kusserow is ever-present in her poems, aware of the contrast between her own son, who she is nursing, and these others, who have lost their homes, their parents, their bearings.

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.9

Two questions run through these compelling poems: the question of our responsibility for the lives of others, and the question of our responsibility for how we represent or write about these other lives. As an activist, anthropologist, and poet, Adrie Kusserow sees these questions as mutually entailed. This is why she ensures that all proceeds from her poetry books go to the school she helped found in South Sudan. These poems are born of the suffering in the Horn of Africa, but they are haunted by an ethical demand that something be returned to the source—something that will make a difference.

I leave the camp, unable to breathe,

me Freud girl, after her interior,
she “Lost Girl,” after my purse.10

This same ethical demand determines Adrie’s view of theory in anthropology and explains the viscous imagery of her poetry. In “Mud” (Vermont/South Sudan), she speaks of the deliberate opacity or muddiness of her poems—of moving “blindly, but well-intentioned, amidst the irresistible mud” of a Vermont pond.11 Anthropologists sometimes turn to literature, she says, to unsettle that which social science has considered settled, and to make good what science has left unexplored and unspoken. And she speaks of her “ethnographic poems” as gestures toward these penumbral domains. Engaging her own subjectivity with the subjectivities of South Sudan refugees in Uganda, she works against the “spurious distancing” of ethnographer and other, and the reduction of persons to homogenous cultural identities or historical circumstances. “Far from documenting a near life, a poem, in its very nomadic vagrancy and line length, rhythm and unsettling metaphor, can depict the borderlands, the liminal places of confusion of a refugee, the internal tug of war.”12 But for Adrie, an ethical commitment overrides all these aesthetic and epistemological issues—a commitment to provide the means of life and livelihood to those whom war has robbed of even a bare life.

In a recent Publishers Weekly review13 of Adrie’s book Refuge, the reviewer wrote scornfully of her “conceit” that “the suffering of Kenya begets Uganda, / begets my husband, / begets me, begets Ana, begets her brother.” For the reviewer, there is something amiss in Adrie’s linking of Sudan’s civil war with her life in Vermont, as when the image of a crow picking at compost conjures an image of war as a constant pecking on “the earth’s beleaguered back.” These worlds are incommensurable, the reviewer argues, and Adrie’s poetic comparison diminishes the suffering in the Sudan to which she ostensibly seeks to bear witness. Though there is always a risk of voyeurism in ethnographic work (a risk Adrie is keenly aware of when she asks, “Would my poems be understandable to the Lost Boys themselves?”), the question of whether we do justice to those we write about can never be answered directly. In this vein, Adrie answers her own question by pointing out that her poems might be understood, not by these boys, now, but by some other boys in the future—a comment that echoes Arendt’s notion of our actions having future or distant effects that we can neither anticipate or determine. Adrie Kusserow’s imagery is breathtaking.

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 . . .14


It is not, therefore, a question of direct reciprocity—of gathering data from or drawing inspiration from someone, then repaying the favor as one might discharge a debt, or of meeting some absolute moral standard for how we should respond to the suffering of others. It is a question of acknowledging the unpredictable and surprising ways in which a gift received comes back to the giver, or how a gift given in good faith may yet do harm, the road to hell paved with good intentions. One has only to think of the CIA’s covert use of Georges Condominas’s published fieldwork15 among the Mnong of Indochina (that led to the carpet bombing of villages in which the French ethnographer had lived and worked), or the uses to which ethnographic works have been put by indigenous rights activists (uses that the original ethnographers could not have foreseen), to be reminded that we can never know or completely determine the outcome of our actions. Even Adrie’s decision to return the royalties and profits from the sale of her book to the refugees may have surprising consequences, to be recounted in future poems. And the truth of even the most mundane object depends on who is observing it. Addressing her infant son, Adrie writes, “For now, cooing, clueless, you can hardly see the difference / between the squashed condom / the man threw at her in disgust and the crushed / lily flattened by the muzungu‘s high heel.”16

Adrie once told me that “living among this entanglement of ethical barbed wire we wish a sturdy albeit ill-fitting God would just tell us what to do, or rescue us from this place of human freedom and exposure to the suffering of others.” Though we cannot know with any certainty the consequences of our words and deeds, we can, perhaps, remind ourselves of Marcel Mauss’s observations in The Gift—that in giving we are momentarily carried beyond ourselves, and it is on this transcendence of the self that the very possibility of a human community depends. “We should come out of ourselves and regard the duty of giving as a liberty, for in it there lies no risk.” A fine Maori proverb runs:

Ko maru kai atu
Ko maru kai mai

Ka ngohe ngohe.

“Give as much as you receive and all is for the best.”17


Refuge, by Adrie Kusserow. American Poets Continuum Series, no. 137, BOA Editions, 81 pages, $16.


  1. ​Adrie Kusserow, Refuge (BOA Editions, 2013), 61. Some line breaks have been adjusted to fit the Bulletin format.
  2. Ibid., 27–28.
  3. Hannah Arendt, “Labor, Work, Action,” in The Portable Hannah Arendt, ed. Peter Baehr (Penguin, 2000), 180.
  4. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago University Press, 1958), 190.
  5. Michel Foucault, “Afterword: The Subject and Power,” in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago University Press,
    1983), 221.
  6. Kusserow, Refuge, 62.
  7. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Itinerary of a Thought,” New Left Review 58 (November-December 1969): 45.
  8. Kusserow, Refuge, 39.
  9. Ibid., 37.
  10. Ibid., 53.
  11. Ibid., 23.
  12. These quotes are from a set of Adrie Kusserow’s notes that accompanied her presentation at a seminar on literary anthropology at the School of Advanced Research in Sante Fe, New Mexico, in April 2013.
  13. Review of Refuge, Publishers Weekly, March 18, 2013.
  14. Kusserow, Refuge, 13.
  15. Georges Condominas, Nous avons mangé la forêt de la pierre-génie Gôo (Mercure de France, 1957).
  16. Kusserow, Refuge, 17. In East Africa, muzungu means “white person.”
  17. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (Cohen and West, 1954), 69.

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His recent books include The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration and the Question of Well-Being (University of California Press, 2013) and Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.