These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.
27 of 100: Save Our Ship by Barbara Ungar (2019, Ashland Poetry Press)
Quick, personal thoughts:
- I know Barbara Ungar through my local poetry community (Upstate New York), and I also studied with her for a couple semester-long workshops at a graduate program at the College of Saint Rose in Albany. Those semesters were a delight, and the encouragement and guidance she offered everyone in that room are still with me.
- The book’s organization (poems are arranged alphabetically by title) plays out the opening poem: “The Diverse Vices of Women, Alphabetized” (a concept Ungar explained here as “a renaissance alphabet intended to teach women to avoid sensual pleasure, particularly that of speech”).
- The diversity of form and subject matter in the poems (seemingly joined only by their organizing principle: the alphabet) is deceiving. Although its range is stunning — from cockroaches inside a woman’s skull to coral reefs, from Pat Robertson to Heidegger, from holocaust to zumba, from U.S. drone strikes to knitting — it becomes clear that the poems serve a couple of core ideas. They’re so subtle and personal that I am more than halfway through the book and the alphabet (I am a real dummy sometimes LOL) when I make the connections. But once I get to the abcedarian about extinction, I realize “Save Our Ship” is a cry for the planet. And not just environmentally. It’s an SOS for our species (dear God, what we inflict on one another in relationships and global conflicts).
- It’s the perfect echo to what I read/finished just yesterday: Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Nezhukumatathil’s book alludes to the danger and ongoing devastation as a hum, and Ungar writes, “All night the hollow moan of oil trains / runs hidden behind trees in the dark.” Mortality, and also our own hands in the dying of everything around us, may be just background noise in our day-to-day, but in these poems, as in Oceanic, it cuts through.
- This is a damn good example of showing vs. telling –>
- The title poem (“Save Our Ship”) is placed near the end of the book, and it concludes with actual morse code for SOS. It’s a great reminder for me to note the risks this book takes with form, from the opening “V” on the page and right on through not only to a sestina and a rondeau but also to an ode to the letter U. And for the letter X? A poem titled “X-Wife.” In other words, the collection — though its distress signal is clear — is playful and doesn’t take itself (the poetic device of the alphabet) too seriously. In doing so, the alphabet is allowed to work its magic… as opposed to imposing something awkward onto the work.
Lines I want to remember:
- “Some still do not believe / in the weather. Mass // hallucination? Sump pumps, / who’d dream them up? // Crammed in a musty cellar / velvet and cobwebs, // the roundelay of denial. / Our passports to the dreamtime // cancelled.”
- “shield my eyes / against that busy old fool / the rising sun / a constant token / of the warp speed of life / and the barely imaginable / stretchings and shrinkings / of spacetime”
- “like Helen Mirren who said / You can buy a jacket for five hundred bucks / or buy one in a thrift shop, and no one // can tell, so get the thrift-shop jacket / plus a bottle of champagne.”
- “You can’t see a shooting star / where you’re looking only / in your side vision / Super blue blood moon / Like everyone I squandered / my youth and good intentions”
- “It’s not easy / being a guy in a Barbie-world. // He was always only an accessory.”
- “Don’t be shamed by the scar– / you’ve wrestled till day break / with man and god, and managed / to limp away blessed.”
- “who … could conceive of a nine-meter-long / metal dong delivered by parachute / to drop into Earth’s exquisite lap” (on MOAB: mother of all bombs)
- “When the end comes I’ll climb a mountain / to watch with a good red wine”
- “If this world survives / another quarter century / will anyone come looking / for me, and who will remember / three of my poems?”
What others have said:
- from Trailer Park Quarterly: “SOS is a boundless collection that explores the place of women in our society and so much more. … These poems resonate with me because of their seemingly simple narratives that morph into broader philosophical and societal questions.”
- from Kirkus Review: “A collection of 57 poems that sound alarms about current ecological, political, and cultural trends. … The book is full of keen insights regarding the passage of time, whether one is attending a wedding with one’s first boyfriend, taking a nostalgic walk through the West Village, or observing a spider and her web. Overall, Ungar suggests that language and memory are futile attempts to impose order on the chaos that surrounds us. A distress call that’s worth reading and heeding.”
- in Ungar’s own words at the Saint Rose English blog: “‘Save Our Ship’ is #MeToo meets Global Weirding, in an abecedarian (or alphabetical) arrangement, with Morse code to boot. It was inspired by work done by one of our (Saint Rose) art historians, Theresa Flanigan, on a renaissance didactic alphabet entitled ‘The Diverse Vices of Women, Alphabetized,’ supposed to teach women to control their sensual appetites, especially their desire for speech. I had to write back to that!”
Where some of the poems from this collection live online:
- “Save Our Ship“
- “Dear Bill,” “Wedding with First Boyfriend,” “Interior Paramour,” “MOAB” & “After Zumba” here
- “End Notes to Coral Reefs“
- “The Woman With a Live Cockroach in Her Skull“
Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!