Immortal Medusa: Haunting and Eclectic
The book’s stunning cover art by American assemblage artist Joseph Cornell is a collage and tempura on paperboard—an untitled piece often referred to as Marine Fantasy with Tamara Toumanova. The collage features one of the most glamorous stars of 20th-century dance surrounded by an underwater kingdom, arms raised as if to receive whatever gifts the universe has to offer, a sacred posture. This underwater goddess—a perfect stand-in for poet Barbara Ungar—provides sustenance for neighboring marine life as algae sprouts from her dress to nourish schools of fish. This symbiotic relationship between humankind and nature inhabits Ungar’s latest poetic endeavor Immortal Medusa (The Word Works), a treasure trove teeming with all sorts of creatures: iridescent worms, blue whales, porcupines, giraffes, woodchucks, and seahorses. The reader encounters contemplative meditations about these venerable life-forms. For example, in “Reading Rumi to Dolphins,” the narrator feeds the almost otherworldly mammals and is alone at the edge of the pool, / ecstatic, chanting to the sky.
However, as much as Ungar’s poems are an existential exploration and celebration of life, they are also “an elegy to dead friends and fathers,” asserts poet Meg Kearney. This paternal tribute is noticeable in poems like “My Father Looks at Vermeer for the Last Time” and “Visiting My Parents’ Exercise Class.” In fact, the opening poem in Immortal Medusa is titled “Dead Letters” and starts with a haunting and intriguing couplet: I get letters from the dead. They blow / out of the mailbox and into the snow. Ungar later throws a wild card into the mix by punctuating the center of Immortal Medusa with a series of sometimes humorous, sometimes heartwrenching haiku in "The V.A." Each piece is a compact, meaningful universe. The poet ponders between earth and sky / will I pass my father / among white clouds? The final haiku a quirky obervation: only our dad could / enjoy his own autopsy— / still doing science.
Though Ungar is at the height of poetic intensity when memorializing those who have passed—be it man or porcupine—lighthearted pieces like “Athena’s Blow Job” and “On a Student Paper Comparing Emily Dickenson to Lady Gaga” balance out the collection. Ungar is adept at volleying between grief and joy seamlessly. Anything goes in Immortal Medusa, a poetic wonderland where haikumaster Basho is a ninja; Kabbalah Barbie is introspective and philosophizes on the nature of the universe; and readers learn about tiny men inside human sperm viewed through the screw-barrel microscope. Part of the book’s appeal and charm resides in Ungar’s eclectic choices. But the poet’s deep reverence for all types of life is what infuses Immortal Medusa with vibrancy and makes it an especially relevant read.
My Father Looks at Vermeer for the Last Time
The old scientist leans on his walker.
His remaining eye is rheumy: what does it see?
He stares toward the dim chamber
342 paint-years away
where yellow from Dutch stained glass
draws the eye toward the astronomer’s face
blurring away from ours forever, his hands
leaping off the table with its astrolabe
and celestial globe alive with the zodiac—
The light of the mind, creamy,
skims this interior murky as an uncleaned
tank, an indecipherable star chart
and picture of Moses in the bulrushes
hung in the muddy gloaming,
the end of knowledge.
The one who set up still lifes
and gave us his paints, who drove us
to endless museums, hauls off
inscrutable as a tortoise. This will be
the last time we can coax him from his lair
to meet his old friend, Vermeer,
who so rarely stops by Minneapolis.
In any case, they no longer seem
to have anything to say to each other.
We always head straight for the dinosaurs,
then the ocean creatures. I boggle
at the blue whale suspended overhead,
more gargantuan than any
Titanosaur, born bigger than a bus—
how can it hang here in the air
or subsist in the sea on its broth
of microscopic plankton?
My son never pauses, he rushes
to the sharks. The whale’s so big
and he’s so small, he can’t see it—
The Hall of Ocean Life is dark blue
and dim, the whale a lighter
shade—maybe for him it merges
with the room. I wonder how old
he’ll be when he first sees it, and
what he'll say. And what
hangs over me—
how many years will I put in
visiting this dim Wunderkammer
until I am big enough to see?
Why I'd Rather Be a Seahorse
We’d court for days first, changing color,
swimming side by side, holding tails,
or holding on to the same strand of seagrass.
We wheel around each other
in our Predawn Dance,
then do our True Courtship Dance
where he pumps water through
his pouch to open and display
its alluring emptiness.
When I’m ready, we let go
our anchor, drift upward
snout to snout, spiraling
as we rise till I stick my
ovipositor in to his
I slim by a third
as he swells. After we sink
back into the waving seagrass,
I'm the one who swims away.
Alone he jacks off into the sea.
Fertilized, the eggs settle in,
incubate for weeks. I drop by
for Morning Greetings, swim off
while he goes back to work,
sucking up food through his snout—
he's eating for two
and a half thousand fry,
hatched in his brood pouch.
Out in the big sea, only a dozen
will survive. I never see them.
I need all my energy to create.
He labors alone, at night—
when I return in the morning,
the fry have drifted off
and he's ready for my next load.
About the Poet: Barbara Ungar’s most recent book, Immortal Medusa. was chosen as one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Indie Books of 2015 and won the Adirondack Center for Writing Poetry Award. Prior books include Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life and The Origin of the Milky Way, which won the Gival Prize, an Independent Publishers Silver Medal, and a Hoffer award. Her poems are forthcoming in the Southern Indiana Poetry Review, The Worcester Review, and The Heron’s Nest. A professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, she teaches literature and creative writing. For more information, please visit her web site.
About the Guest Contributor: Rita Maria Martinez is the author of The Jane and Bertha in Me (Aldrich Press), a poetry collection based on the classic novel Jane Eyre. As part of Books and Baguettes, an on-going series sponsored by the Orange Island Arts Foundation. Martinez will read her poetry, as well as additional poems from two of Ungar's collections. The event takes place July 16th in Fort Lauderdale, and the theme is "Updating the Classics." For more information about this luncheon and reading, visit the Orange Island Arts Foundation.