Save Our Ship by Barbara Ungar (Ashland Poetry Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Carolyn Janecek
Barbara Ungar breaks open the nomenclature of womanhood in her newest collection, Save Our Ship, winner of the Richard Snyder Memorial Prize in November 2019 (Ashland Poetry Press). “The Diverse Vices of Women, Alphabetized” sets the tone for the book in every conceivable way: it pokes at the conventions of masculine rationalism. It splits open the sphere of womanhood like a crystal ball full of poprocks that prickle your tongue with alliteration, “For a woman is [a]…Ruiner of realms / Savage in pride / Truculent tyrant / Vanity of Vanities / Xexes’ insanity.” Ungar presents St. Antonius’s Latin categorization of the vices of women and puts it side-by-side with the English in an imposing, concrete “V” shape. The poem evokes a long history of gendered rationalism, one that reminded of Genevieve Lloyd’s analysis of Western philosophy. Rationality versus wilderness. Masculinity versus femininity. A list of unruly, feminine vices categorized in a neat and “masculine” way—to control them. In Ungar’s collection, this list of vices becomes a point of pride—a found poem that introduces the many women who stroll and stomp through Save Our Ship.
Speaking of these women, I love Ungar’s use of persona and the portraits she paints of historical figures, some subtle, others more direct allusions. “Après Moi” is twist on Marie Antoinette’s famous words, turning them into a guillotine against capitalism and the military industrial complex: “Let them eat the howling of mothers…Let them eat ashes / Let them eat mold / Let them eat fallout / Let them eat America first.” Throughout the collection, Ungar intersperses moments of levity with quiet poems like “Emily Dickinson’s Estate Sale” and the hilarious “Man Bun Ken,” illustrating the guess-work of excavating history: “Future archeologists / may stumble upon his simulacra / & mistake him for a shape-shifting god, // the cyclically dying & reborn / consort of the Great Goddess Barbie.” I cackled, delighted at this departure from the archetype of Barbie as the bane of self-esteem for six-year-olds everywhere.
Even so, there were a couple of poems in the collection that I felt didn’t reach their full potential. I kept returning to “Shooting into the Hurricane” because it seemed to stop short of delving into its subject matter. The poem focuses on the Facebook meme of shooting into Hurricane Irma to turn it around. But the poem doesn’t hit the same satirical tone as the meme itself. When the poem shifts toward fake news and the audience’s complacency, it feels like a misinterpretation of the meme. The meme’s role can be read as a quest for agency through humor. What power do we have against a hurricane? What power do we have against increasingly volatile storms that level communities? What can we do if our government refuses foreign aid during the devastation, like during Katrina? The meme of shooting into the eye of the hurricane ironically points to taking power back into the hands of the people. But this poem, instead, settles for dismissing the event as “putting the duh in Florida.” This isn’t solely Ungar’s blind spot though—I could point to a number of works by great poets where there is a generational gap when it comes to commenting on current events, popular culture, and especially technology and communication. This gap, unfortunately, leads to poems that don’t fully engage with their subjects because they misunderstand or don’t fully address the sociocultural context.
But Ungar does have many more poems in the collection which do successfully—spectacularly even—address current events and the looming threats of the recent century. Another central theme of the collection is climate change, which parallels well with the intertwined narratives of womanhood and power. “Endnotes to Coral Reefs” is a ghostly echo of coral reef die-off. We never see it coming—only the notes creating a negative image of what once was. Our own bodies become parallel to the coral reefs as our marrow dries out: “13. Corallite closely resembles human bone / 14. Bleaching and subsequent starvation.” “Naming the Animals” is another mostly-found poem that chronicles the last sightings of now-extinct species, invoking the names of the dead like a plea for mercy.
Save Our Ship unfolds from a single point—volatile womanhood—and expands into a multifaceted perspective on loss, our environment, and new beginnings. One subject matter laces through the next, from dying reefs to divorces to a group of women collecting flowers after Zumba class, finding some kind of peace.
North American Stadiums by Grady Chambers (Milkweed Editions, 2018) and Catafalque by Adam Tavel (University of Evansville Press, 2018)
Reviewed by Jenna Le
Every year, a wealth of new poetry collections emblazoned with the names of prestigious prizes arrives on bookstore shelves. These prizes are often named after recently deceased poets, implying that the winning books, to some extent, embody and keep alive the spirits of those literary greats—a sort of tantalizing posthumous endorsement. Two such award-winning books to come out toward the end of the last decade were Grady Chambers’s North American Stadiums, recipient of the inaugural Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, and Adam Tavel’s Catafalque, which carried off the 20th annual Richard Wilbur Award.
Chambers’s debut book may not quite achieve the uncannily precocious, condensed wisdom found in the lines of Max Ritvo, who fought a rare bone cancer for the last nine years of his life before passing away too soon, at the age of twenty-five, in 2016. Still, Chambers’s lanky, sprawling free verse shares the youthful exuberance, the Whitmanian optimism, the unembarrassed emotionalism, and the wistful romanticism that characterized Ritvo’s: “I was sixteen and my heart hurt / to watch it / it made me want to be older / and more lonesome,” Chambers’s narrator admits in a passage reminiscing about an atmospheric Hollywood movie scene in “Far Rockaway.” Chambers’s poetry, like Ritvo’s, manifests a humor-laced realism with regard to how the human body counterbalances grandeur with awkwardness, magnificence with naked vulnerability: “I spread out in the bathtub / like some mythic winter king.” Chambers’s restless mind, not satisfied with the small scale, radiates the same energy in its loping journeys up and down the shining, acne-ridden body of America, sweating an effusive love for the nation’s industrial cities. This love is leavened by an awareness of how masculine violence is an inseparable part of America’s character (“When I awoke,…it was 2018, just another wartime Sunday”), as well as an uneasy acknowledgement of this country’s leanings toward nativism (“But I was not born here [i.e., Syracuse], / and who am I / to speak of its deaths?”). In his efforts to craft a new mural of America’s past and present, Chambers seems to draw hope from rare, fragile visions of innocence he glimpses in his travels: e.g., “Kids by the roadside, I remember—blue snow cones / in white paper cups.” It will be interesting to watch how the balance of innocence and experience in Chambers’s own voice shifts as his career progresses and how this will further complicate his vision of America.
The poet Richard Wilbur, who passed away in 2017, is especially celebrated for the finesse with which he handled complex formal structures, and one can easily picture him giving a nod of respect from beyond the grave to Catafalque, Adam Tavel’s third poetry collection and the 20th winner of the award that bears his name. Over and over in Catafalque, Tavel harnesses difficult poetic forms to his purposes, often with a heavy-browed gravity, but occasionally with a flash of humor, too, as in the wonderfully imaginative “Son Net,” a—you guessed it!—sonnet in which the speaker’s son, surreally, metamorphoses into a fishing net: “villagers scooped his diamond holes / and cast them at the sea…” Although, as a whole, Catafalque feels dominated by poems solemnly rooted in history—personal and family history, as well as military and cultural history—Tavel is arguably at his most captivating in his rare forays into surrealism: it is in these moments that the skyward force of imagination perfectly balances the earthward force of poetic structure, the magical equilibrium for which Gregory Orr advocated in his essay “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” Another instance where this occurs is at the end of Tavel’s “Elegy for Elvis, Who Died During My Parents’ Honeymoon to Disney World” (this collection is full of great titles!); here, a sublime blend of surrealism and black humor liberates the speaker’s parents—and the speaker himself—from their static sconces in history’s timeline:
“[My mother’s] tears flood the lift and wreck
its gears and pulleys.
Dad jabs the little buttons
into gold halos.
Jesus, quit it, he says, quit
we’re going to drown.
They do. They’re still floating there.
There I’m waiting to be born.”
Although overtly surrealistic moments such as these are uncommon in this book, Tavel at times achieves a similarly magical effect through the way his great intelligence kneads syntax like Play-Doh, bringing out a rarely seen plasticity in the language without sacrificing legibility, as when he describes a Walmart store clerk screwing in a lightbulb as “twisting us all ablaze hereafter.” At its best, Tavel’s poetry, in like fashion, twists its audience “all ablaze hereafter.”
Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World by Kathryn Cowles (Milkweed Editions, 2020)
Reviewed by Raena Shirali
Kathryn Cowles’s Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World is an exercise in naming & renaming, a photographic offering, a breathless conversation, a friend showing the reader—through image and through text—humanity’s fragmented, partial relationship to our surroundings. Mastery permeates this book, most notably in the form of a voice that balances conversational tenderness with metaphysical explorations of transliteration, transubstantiation, and the function of place in memory. Cowles has crafted here a multimodal journey wherein each poem and photo-poem can be read as “a written version of an audio version of a person talking.” Prose blocks and short lines veer at times imagistic, while also acknowledging the limitations of language; brackets and dashes are alternately used to indicate physical action, or to indicate a sound itself. In some ways, Maps and Transcripts reads like a revolutionary take—one against description, and towards approximation of the actual.
But to approximate the thing, one must first attempt to name it; if Kathryn Cowles’s pen is a pointer, her repetitions are insistence and awe: in the poem “Metaphor: Description, Uses Thereof, Side Effects, Interactions, Etc.” she writes:
"…To William Blake, as in, the --------- is a --------- because both are holy, holy,
holy…Holy arm. Holy basil plant. Holy blue roof. Holy photograph. Holy actual
world. Equal sign equal sign equal sign. Holy equal sign…"
The equal sign is the metaphor, but it is also the relationship between any given two pages in the book: on some, we find poems (as transcripts); on others, photo-poems (as maps). Here, the viewer’s (or transcriber’s, or photographer’s) subjective lens is the equal sign itself. Compellingly, though invested in the actual, these poems subvert the very binaries they prescribe (some poems’ titles include the word “Maps,” and text is always overlaid onto images); and this subversion reveals a signature voice not soon to be forgotten. Cowles memorably spells out her approach for her reader: “I have tried to write it down. The ordinary world. When I did, and when I didn’t, it was always still there.” Just as the world keeps existing when we’re not looking at it, Cowles’s observations keep existing in perpetuity, in document, in transcript and in map: “And I was there. And I breathed the original air.”
Carolyn Janecek is a Czech-American writer, MFA student at Colorado State University, and assistant managing editor at Colorado Review. Carolyn's poetry has appeared in Permafrost, The Florida Review, and Peach Mag, among others.
Jenna Le authored Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2018; 1st ed. pub. by Anchor & Plume, 2016), which won Second Place in the 2017 Elgin Awards. Her poetry appears in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, and West Branch.
Raena Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), which won the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a 2018 VIDA scholarship, a 2017 Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University, and a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize in 2013. Her poems have also received prizes from Cosmonauts Avenue in 2016 and Gulf Coast in 2014. Shirali’s poems & reviews have appeared widely in American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A Day, The Nation, The Rumpus, & elsewhere. She recently co-organized We (Too) Are Philly—a summer poetry festival highlighting voices of color—and is co-editor-in-chief of Muzzle Magazine. Shirali lives in Philadelphia, where she is an assistant professor of English at Holy Family University.