Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thrift and The Origin of the Milky Way by Barbara Louise Ungar

Have you ever encountered people – face-to-face or as characters in a novel or even writers – and felt as if you knew them? That has happened to me. When I read Margaret Atwood’s novel, Cat’s Eye, I felt as if we had grown up on the same block in Philadelphia, even though she grew up in Toronto. When I read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I felt as if we had gone to the same boarding school. Now I have another author to add to this list. I connect on so many levels with Ungar.

While shopping at Amazon, their creepy, prescient, wonderful computer recommended a book of poetry -- Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life by Barbara Louise Ungar. I had never heard of the poet, but I bought it on impulse, solely because I was intrigued by the title. I read it and loved the poetry. I reviewed it here last March.

Now here is where the story gets a bit complicated. I never heard from James Joyce, of course, and I had only met Atwood at a signing in Boston -- before I had read Cat’s Eye. After my review of Ungar appeared, I corresponded with her through e-mail. She thanked me for my review, and I told her I was going to get both of her other books of poetry. She wrote, “Oh, no. Let me send them to you.” I had misgivings, and I responded with an “Okay, but let me pay for them.” “No, I have plenty of copies here.” So, time passed, and I fretted. What if I don’t like them? How can I review them after her kindness? Worse yet, what if I love them? How will she know I am being sincere? After all, she doesn’t know me any better than I know her.

Well, the books arrived this week, and I am in the middle of a novel I am not really enjoying, so I set that aside on an overcast Saturday to read these two slim volumes. First, we will tackle Thrift.

I am just going to say it – I loved most of the poems in here. Ungar’s humor, her excellent diction, her clever allusions, images, and phrases captivated me. I immediately read it again and found another thing or two I liked. “Formica” represents an excellent example of all these points:

“After arranging the peonies, I scoop
crazed ants off the counter

with delicate paper coaxings, and,
by my third transport

across the grass to the peony bush, wonder
if they could find their own way

home from the front
steps (like pets who navigate

the continent) or if they’d be devoured
by enemy armies (an ant Iliad)

and what tales
do they tell the colony

of alien abduction
(the A-Files?)

and of the strangeness of Formica
and this paper plane.” (21)

I also loved “Self-Diagnosis” (38-39). Another poem I really liked, “For the Town Clerk” (60) inspired me to write a poem about a box in my closet containing a mishmash of cards, letters, photos, and souvenirs from a pen pal I had years ago. I hear echoes of 13 Rue Thérèse here as well. All in all, a most excellent and enjoyable collection of poetry. (5 stars)

The second volume, The Origin of the Milky Way is another story. While I like several of these poems – all with the same wit and quality as those in Thrift – I didn’t relate to these as well, since many were about childbirth. When my son -- now about to turn 28 yikes! -- was in utero I heard all the stories about the difficulty and pain of childbirth, but I must admit, none so clever or vivid as Ungar’s.

One short poem, “Tanka,” really made me laugh, however:

“Horses stand in the rain
head down in an open field.
What else can they do?

It’s not labor.
I can stand it.” (39)

I refuse to take a star away for the reason stated, so I won’t rate it. Read it yourself and let me know what you think. I hope Ungar writes a memoir. She sounds as if she has had a wonderfully interesting and creative life so far!

--Chiron, 5/22/11

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