August 18th, 2009 09:38 EST
Poets More Informative Than Anchormen
(Note: This one of an occasional series of musings about poets whose work prompts me to think I might have something enlightening to say. They by no means represent all the poets I encounter and admire. And this is why I wince at such Facebook-type questions as, Who is your favorite author? What kind of boob would I be if I could honestly answer a question that reflects a crass commerce that reduces everything to competition? Surely the degree to which a culture transcends this is one measure of its achievement. "DM)
Thrift, Barbara Louise Ungar, Word Tech Editions, 82pp, 2005
The Origin of The Milky Way, Barbara Louise Ungar, Gival Press, 64pp, 2007
I admire the very first poem, `Magic Carpet Editions,` of Barbara Louise Ungar`s Thrift inordinately. It poses twelve questions and then answers them, starting with Does light die away?
It`s an extraordinarily humble way to begin a book of poems, particularly a first book. Relax, the poet is saying, I`m not out to wow you, I just want to invite you to paddle in this sream with me for a while and see what we see.
I want my grandmother, Anya, but she`s in bed with a wolf "so starts the poem, "Nonalogy,` telling us two things at the outset: this poet will always take us unawares and her poetics will never shuffle words into some seeming metrical shape to trick us: Rather they derive from the sound and impulse of her original intent, the moment the idea of the poem was born, and so we are in the presence of its breathing and logical caesurae, before the poet`s store of technical skills began to impose themselves on her. We`re in the presence of the poem`s moment. Little is imposed on these poems with hindsight. If I`m wrong about this I`m wrong because the poet deploys her skills with a kind of Zen focus on the moment of inception. She never loses touch with what delighted her into song.
There are poems that are troubled and fussed and fidgeted to such a degree that we are constrained, finally, to admire the poet for her skills, for the extent of her studies. But not here, not in Ungar`s poems. Whatever she knows she constrains to serve the moment of birth, and that, in many ways, is what her second book, The Origin of The Milky Way, is about: birth. The birth of her child, Izaak, the birth of her wild children, her poems.
Barbara Louise Ungar
It would be easy to conclude that Ungar is a restless experimenter, as in "From The Cutting Room Floor` on page 76 of Thrift, but my sense is that she is unerringly adept at apprehending what a poem wants from its metrics, from its placement. She is in touch with the poem that is coming to be in the way a Lamaze birth is in touch compared to a conventional birth. The poem, like the child, goes on to reflect the mother`s choice and to bear its mark.
You never know when a poet has something to say. Some poems only seem to have something to say, some say little very well. There`s a foolish convention that all great poems are written in youth. I doubt Keats, who is often cited in the same breath as this convention, would have concurred. And God knows Yeats wouldn`t have. Some poets become famous before they have something to say, and sometimes that gets in the way of their ever saying much. Sometimes we don`t care, because they`re so musical or outrageous or innovative. And in every case it doesn`t matter, because the desire to write a poem, good or bad, is precious and deserves respect. It doesn`t matter because the literary conventions by which we live are false, often beholden to commerce and politics, those twin seducers. I have seen critics say, This is a good poem, this is a good book, but can the author top it? Who gives a damn except the fool critic and the market he serves?
Ungar starts out in Thrift like someone who has been studying Qaballah for a long time (she has assured me she hasn`t) and decides that poems are her materials for repairing and rebuilding the world, the adytum, the mysterium. Sometimes, wandering one of her poems, I think of the high priests of Israel who entered the Holy of Holies but once a year and always took the precaution of tying a golden cord to their waists in order to find their way out. And when I think of them I remember that I am the sort of person who would have entered the Holy of Holies with a knife to cut the cord. Ungar deserves readers of the latter kind.
The prosody in Thrift is more restless than in The Origin of the Milky Way, and in this sense Thrift is more concerned with the nature of language, while The Origin of the Milky Way settles down immediately to being a conveyance for the poet`s urgencies.
But meter is always on this poet`s mind, whether rising, as with iamb and anapest, or falling, as with trochÃ©e and dactyl, and her use of the variant foot, as in Barbarians on page 68 of Thrift, is subtle in a characteristic way: she does not lull her reader with an expected verse foot and then jolt the reader with a variant. That is an effective but often cheap versification. Instead, Ungar seems to whisper to her reader, I`m going to do what the thought requires, so expect a variant spondÃ©e now and then. Subconsciously, the reader is grateful; nobody likes to feel handled.
We are not subject to her poetic ambitions, her strivings to impress. This impeccable restraint in a world that assigns a monetary value to everything is a remarkable tribute by the poet to her reader. It assumes a reader who savors the difference between virtuosity and wisdom.
Barbarian quotes Adorno: To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. The Spartan lines that follow in defiance of this inarguable dictum are breathtaking because they walk out onto the razor`s edge between words and silence, concluding:
let this poem be/the/echo/of a silent scream
We cannot obey Adorno, we have not the restraint or decency or even the biochemical wherewithal. Only a race that perhaps had achieved androgyny might contemplate such discipline, such reverence for the suffering of the past.
The placement of this poem is exquisite, as it ought to be if it is going to stand in opposition to the overwhelming dictum. Exquisite too is the irony of saying let this poem be, because the poet finds no way other than her voice to honor the admonition. The situation is rather like an exhibition of the work of Nam June Paik that I once attended at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. As I entered I encountered a huge banner that proclaimed, Print Is Dead. Not yet, I muttered to myself. Once I had read Barbarian I thought, To live after Auschwitz is barbaric.
The Origin of The Milky Way, which in 2006 won the Gival Press Poetry Award, is an altogether different experience. It is a tribute to her son, Izaak, and is more formal, reserved, measured. Even a visual scan of the book, without reading the words, yields a more geometrical sense. Here are meditations on pregnancy, birth and the immense, uncharted responsibilities of motherhood. If the generality of motherhood were as contemplative as these poems the world would be more habitable and perhaps there would have been no Auschwitz.
I was dumbstruck by this stanza in "After Birth` on page 26:
Now she wonders what she missed.
Essential oil of newborn heads? Eau de l`autre cotÃ©,
scent of heaven or wherever we come from.
We all wonder we missed. Every day. But when a new mother, who also happens to be a kind of magus, says it, it takes on a suddenness that appalls us.
Later, in "To Women of a Certain Age,` the poet sings us a song from which we can`t recover. It changes everything. We could almost curse her for speaking so true:
Weep, mommies. Weep
for hard bodies, wet
lips, petal cheeks "
weep for the tight buds
frgrant with unspilled perfume,
for the blown rose made lace
by rapacious beetles.
And then in a later stanza:
Watch your daughter sail blithely
into the cloud of fucking
as you stumble out the other side,
shaking your dyed, graying locks,
going, What was that?
I`ll mention no other poems because this one alone says so much about Ungar`s genius. Notice how the last line of that first stanza gut-punches us where we stand. We are the rapacious beetles, oh yeah. We thought we knew where she was going, to some predictable place, some familiar idea, but we didn`t have a clue.
And then, to sail blithely into the cloud of fucking, a troubling image, may or may not be like sailing into the famous cloud of unknowing (God knows what youth does or doesn`t know), but the engine of this poem is that single word, going. The poet could have said saying. But she chose the demotic teen-ager`s usage because it was the perfect, inevitable, hyperkinetic way to ask, What was that? Here is not just the bittersweet poignancy of motherhood, marking the passage of one`s own youth, but the universal recognition that when we sailed into adulthood we were on auto-pilot, the wheel lashed to our spectacular narcissism.
This is how a great poem expresses with a near contempt for words what thousands of pages of theology and science and journalism can`t, for the poem brings us home to whatever we are ready to hear, whereas everything else imposes upon us.
I had the pleasure of hearing this poet read. She reads as if she is unshakably conscious of Adorno`s terrifying comment, so like Voltaire`s smile. She reads as if releasing doves.