Review by Marcie Newton
CHARLOTTE BRONTË, YOU RUINED MY LIFE
by Barbara Louise Ungar
The Word Works
P. O. Box 42164,
Washington DC 20015
2011, 80 pp., $15.00
When I first picked up Barbara Ungar’s glorious book of poems, I asked myself, “What on earth did Charlotte do to ruin your life?” I soon found out―“Reader, I married him.” In this highly accessible book, Jane’s and the poet-heroine’s destinies interlock—experiences shared and sealed—and the nature of the situation is revealed: the doomed attachment to the “brooding” and “dark brute” of a man, a powerhouse that will chew you up and spit you out like a dog “that worries its bone.”
In Dante-esque fashion, I accompany the poet-heroine on her allegorical journey as we plunge into the depths of marital-hell, come up for air in an uncertain purgatory, and finally move toward a paradisial vision of love. From a variety of erudite perspectives that Ungar clothes in wit and a glittering array of poetic forms, we brave the dark storms of the divorce trajectory.
Thematically, what is particularly striking about these poems is the paradoxical relationship between imprisonment and freedom, motifs that Ungar expertly interweaves as she holds up the visionary torch for all women in their search for identity, love, and belonging. The book’s namesake poem, “Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life,” epitomizes the idea of a woman finding herself whipped up in smoldering flames one instant and simmering the next. It is an uncertain future the poet-heroine faces, governed by indecision and deception, which is poignantly driven by the prospect of freedom, conflicting with the need to covet adamantine chains of love that leave the heart torn:
… Nearing fifty and divorce, I weep
as Orson Welles plays Rochester, those lines
I’d waited all my life to hear—
I had a string under my left rib,
inextricably knotted to yours . . .
and if we had to part, that cord
would be snapt; and I should take to
I cannot help but notice in this heart-wrenching scene undertones of sardonic humor at the female plight, characteristic of Ungar’s style: The poet-heroine weeps at Welles’ masculine (but pathetic) act, and his heart-“string” manipulates her like a marionette, which offers the reader a unique and masterfully constructed juxtaposition of images that correspond to the poet-heroine’s conflict.
Triggered by homicidal wishes in “Why don’t they just drop dead,” which closes the first section, “Rosemary’s Divorce,” the poet-heroine feverishly plunges deeper into her own inferno in the mid-section “Ghost Bride,” with me in tow, heart pounding and fingers sweating. The poem “The Middle-Aged Mermaid” brings home the almost incurable drive towards self-deception, which is where the poet-heroine originally finds herself: “Beached here / dull as seaglass / I’m ground.” Washed-up on the cold stones of patriarchal mythology—psyche broken and battered—the poet-heroine doesn’t recognize “this hobbled creature” as she “limps down the marble stair at night / to soothe her bleeding soles in brine,” but she knows that “[o]ther women gave up / their tongues, their feet, their clits” and that they did so “for love / for love / always for love.”
Our poet-heroine is Jane, Bertha, Kathy, Lucretia, the Miller’s daughter; she is all women battered by love and its illusions, its social doctrines, and its patriarchal fairy-tale ideology. She is wrecked and feels cold in the harsh climate of the woman’s pitiful position, to then be imprisoned in “The Brank” with pinpoint historical accuracy:
A locking iron muzzle, metal mask, or cage,
hinged to enclose the head
often of great weight …
Some shaped like pigs’ heads
Some had asses’ ears
and huge spectacles
a bell on a spring to draw jeers
Some, a chain—
Ungar’s recurring allusions to women brutally being bound correspond to the all too real atrocities and ongoing mutilations that women suffer in almost every culture. Ungar’s imaginative responses to these brutalities are intelligent, commanding, and electric as she faces the demon head-on, conjuring up her own mythical reality with an array of finely executed Dante-esque contrapasso punishments; these include a mighty force of tortured women on broomsticks, who reap their revenge as they “laugh at the little men / shrunken to worms / in our liver-spotted hands,” and zesty voodoo fantasies. In “Ghost Brides,” I am witness to murdered Chinese women who revisit their murderers (morbid events that symbolically relate to the Minghun tradition):
The brides lean in with ghastly lips,
devouring kisses, ride the men
relentlessly and laugh as hair and ribbons
of flesh peel off in foetid wind, come
in wave after wave of formaldehyde.
The men “lie paralyzed” by fear, and “in that dream-stupor where you need / to run but can’t move,” they can only “rise” to the occasion, “gibbering” as the murdered wives ride them, “panting / through their endless honeymoon.”
In the final section, “Mystical Therapy,” the poet-heroine lets go of these revenge fantasies and works on recovery, reaching a degree of self-realization about the dichotomous nature of her imprisonment in an uncertain reality. She oscillates between life and “chloroform” dreams to realize what Emily Brontë always knew and which summarizes the path this book has taken: “Only prison / makes you free, you whispered, / and I enlisted.” I am reminded of the tension between freedom and imprisonment, how it haunts our history, our dreams, indeed our very souls.
And yet there is hope and resolve—there is always hope in Ungar’s poetry, even in the darkest moments. To draw to a close what has been a magnificent phantasmagorical journey, Ungar eloquently brings this sense of hope to light in “Torch Song,” as she reflects upon how “I’ve been carrying a torch / for my self all these years / and didn’t know it.” She peers into her mind’s eye to find that she and Dante’s Beatrice are one and the same: a radiant, maternal, and loving guide. Our poet-heroine is a source of hope for all women who have been through hell and strive for that beautiful place of enlightenment: “Even if I never / see myself again, I can lie / back in the open palm of love.”
Marcie Newton is currently a visiting professor in the English Dept. at The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY. She is also completing her doctorate at The University of Sheffield, entitled Paradoxical Notions of Transgressive Sexuality in the Modernist Autobiographical Novel. In her spare time, Marcie takes karate instruction and likes to hang out with her husband and two children. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.