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Poems of loss and laughter

Review of ‘Save Our Ship’ by Barbara Louise Ungar

Woven through this collection are ideas and images of lost things — loves, words, species, trust, safety. But it is not a collection of brooding or grief. The poems are full of spark and spunk, they glitter and wink. You will not come away from this book feeling depressed; rather, bemused, amused and oddly cheerful.

The poem “This Life,” which characterizes life as “a novel you find hard to put down,” and is “a bit experimental” and “no thriller,” concludes with this stanza, which feels to me lovingly resigned rather than anything darker:

In bed, weary, you let it drop

each night. When you open your eyes

there it is again.

The organization of the book takes its cue from a tract by Archbishop Antoninus of Florence from 1454, “The Diverse Vices of Women, Alphabetized,” and poems follow alphabetically by a key word in the titles. But it also echoes the book title “Save Our Ship,” the famous Morse code SOS signal. Each poem is set with a line of Morse code’s alphabet. So we’re given two rough themes, a tongue-in-cheek and revelatory nod to women and their bad behavior, and a cry out from all the losses. It’s complicated.

Poems of motherhood, of being a daughter, sister, lover, a woman weave through this collection. In “On a Scale of One to Ten,” Ungar speculates, “Maybe labor / hurts so much to make // everything after seem easy.” But then that poem’s camera eye pulls out to reveal the mother with her child watching a nature show. Then the camera pulls back farther to encompass the TV show’s consideration of the birth and death of ancient species. Then the poem’s camera pulls back even farther yet to remind us that stars and planets too are birthed. So womanhood, yes, and humanity, and Earth.

We flounder in these poems of loss but bob back up like a cork. SOS and the call is answered by the spirited vitality of these poems. Hope rises. Even “Accident Report,” a poem describing love as a car accident, ends with the woman driver having borrowed a coat from a fox “who’s vamoosed / leaving prints like petals on the snow.”

In “How the Light Gets In,” Ungar gives us this:

Don’t call it your bad hip —

recall the Japanese art of kintsugi

and be the cracked vessel

patched with gold.

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