Shannon Vare Christine on Adrie Kusserow’s The Trauma Mantras

Nothing and no one is immune from the lens of trauma and its effects as humans go about their work, school, and social lives. Locally and internationally, trauma can be translated into almost every language, regardless, the defining characteristics can serve to unite people and likewise divide them. Each culture has its unique way of diagnosing and then treating those who’ve experienced trauma. However, it does not seem more interwoven into the societal framework than its stronghold on American behaviors and attitudes. Anthropologist and poet, Adrie Kusserow, utilizes prose poems to investigate and reflect upon the palpability of trauma in the United States and her travel locales. The Trauma Mantras is written in a form that combines journalistic reporting, with sociological examinings, which are then connected by rich poetic language and devices. The reader learns how cultures merge, who gets to dominate, and whose stories survive, via Kusserow’s poems centering on refugees in Bhutan, Nepal, India, Uganda, South Sudan, and the United States. How does one choose their narrative despite the personal and political forces beyond their control? “Sometimes others’ stories multiply your own, sometimes they cancel each other out. Sometimes one story puts another into relief...” All the while, Kusserow conquers and contemplates ethical questions concerning whether Americans should find self-worth through their philanthropic projects, and should the people in these other cultures and countries be labeled as fixable or salvageable. In this memoir, Kusserow is forced to reckon with her lot, and her relative luck in life, compared to the people she encounters and works alongside. Along the way, she has the self-awareness that “I am a part of this sweaty tribe” of other travelers and “their tiny portable traumas,” but the speaker vows not to exploit other cultures’ suffering for her spiritual gains.

As a society, people can at once critique the intentions and actions of others, and yet individuals need to reflect on their motives and behaviors too, lest they become “addicts now, to the ecstasy of being humble...” This inward searching sometimes manifests itself in whitewashing or over explaining other cultural practices. American society is guilty of “displacing indigenous stories, the lush and intricate local responses to war that have taken years to evolve, with one story that preaches a frail and tender self stuck in reverse.” This forms a “colonialism of therapeutic aid” which is exceedingly dangerous in terms of forcing people to assimilate under the guise of psychological support and resources. These veiled efforts aren’t always naturally overt but may be a result of humans searching for higher powers, deeper meanings, and authentic or truer connections. Americans’ capitalistic ways and materialistic tendencies are attempts to soothe the starving psyches. However, this does little more than placate, suppress, and pacify urges and needs, only for a short time. These eventually claw back up to the surface whether invited or not, pulling each person into a quasi-psychological refugee status. 

While people used to turn to religion and the divine, to fulfill their metaphysical needs, technology and online entertainment have become easy replacements for this void. People are drunk on social media, and the speaker’s daughter, youth from Thimphu, and even Sudanese refugees are not immune to technology’s seductions. The speaker spotlights these juxtapositions of East meets West, memories of the past vs. reflections on the present, and the technological vs. the spiritual. Despite these contrasts and competing perspectives, it leaves “everyone sticky with desire for face to face interaction,” while “trying to pass as pert and Happy.” There is a price to be paid for inhabitance in the “Technocene” as feelings flee “…floating up like ghosts, leaving emoji husks to litter the landscape.” Technology intoxicates both citizens of the East and West alike, and the speaker uses phrases like “coked up, adrenalized, snort, and hungover on bytes” to underline the severity and pervasiveness of this addiction. The fact that people can be functioning while high on technology, yet “starved for meaning” is alarming, especially when one considers what rehabilitation for this drug of choice entails. Is this even feasible? Philosophical questions abound, as the speaker grapples with these issues, which often lead to further rumination rather than clear solutions. 

The contrasts between figurative and objective language in this volume further demarcate the societal underpinnings as it teems with “a kind of verbal fever, a love-smitten Tourettes rose, my brain wild with metaphor...” Terms borrowed from the fields of anthropology and psychology, the texts and practices of Eastern and Western religions, as well as allusions to pop culture and fairy tales, are familiar beacons for readers as they navigate the diverse terrains laid out by the poet. Beautifully vivid, complex, tactile imagery elucidates the dream world of metaphor, while observations ground the reader in the reality of the people who interact with the speaker. The reader is swept into each scene and becomes part of each vignette, acting as an accomplice with the speaker rather than as a mere onlooker. “Like feeding a baby, spooning the coffin deep into the soil. Shadows big as whales slid across the fields. Ayen resting deep in the underworld of One Life to Live...She falls asleep, the shrieks of war compressed into gentle distant moans, like whale songs in the Nature show...slipping out somewhere, maybe even deeper, but finally beyond.” While the multitude of obstacles that humans encounter seems infinite and unbound, stories have the power to allow sacred spaces where all may process life and the vast array of human experiences. Will these connections allow for salvation? The speaker proclaims, “Don’t let anyone tell you anything is separate in this world.” And as long as humans are unafraid to continuously “slip under...the dark spaces that have yet to close, the last tender fontanelles of its skull,” then perhaps there may be hope left for humanity after all.

Shannon Vare Christine is a poet, teacher, and critic living in Bucks County, PA. She is an alumnus of The Community of Writers and Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. Her poems are featured in various anthologies and publications. Additionally, her poetry reviews and literary criticism were published or are forthcoming in The Lit Pub, Cider Press Review, Sage Cigarettes, Compulsive Reader, The Laurel Review, Vagabond City, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Archived writing and more can be found at, her periodic newsletter, Poetic Pause, and on Instagram @smvarewrites.