Review by Michael Meyerhofer
THE ORIGIN OF THE MILKY WAY
by Barbara Louise Ungar
PO Box 3812
Arlington, VA 22203
2007, 70 pp, $15.00
My apparent lack of a womb means I’ll likely never know what it’s like to bear a child (maybe not an altogether bad thing) but reading the lyrically-rich, often darkly witty poems of Barbara Louise Ungar’s The Origin of the Milky Way, I experienced that payoff of truly great poetry: identifying with feelings and experiences altogether different from one’s own. This book—Ungar’s second, and winner of the Gival Press Poetry Award—is a most welcome addition to the stage of modern verse.
The first poem, “Embryology,” begins with these beautifully reflective lines: “Could it just be hormones, / this euphoria / as if someone rubbed petals / of opium poppy all over…” Interestingly, and perhaps what I like best about Ungar’s poetry, is that this description might just as easily apply to other acts of creation—say, to writing a successful poem, an act which for Ungar seems as natural as childbirth.
What hooked me, though, was the poem, “Riddle,” in which Ungar reflects on her unborn son: “There’s a penis deep inside me, / getting bigger every day. / I’m growing balls / & big teats at once.” What’s great about this poem is that it disarms you with its quirky humor then delivers knockout lines like: “I’ve got a pair / of hearts…. One womb, one way / in & out—the hard strait / he’ll have to take.” In this relatively short poem, Ungar successfully shifts from the oddity of having another living being growing inside her to the literal and metaphorical agony of separation. I also love the use of the word strait with its connotations of vying elements, of earth and water as neighboring opposites.
The anxiety of mothers (especially expectant mothers) is surely something that men, let alone men without children, can never fully hope to understand. However, I was deeply moved by the dark humor and intense worry present in “Dream at Twenty-three Weeks.” In this poem, the narrator gives birth to “a talking frog” that falls apart despite the narrator’s best efforts to love and care for it, prompting the narrator to think in dream-state: “What a terrible mother I am.” This poem has its real world compliment in “Prepartum Blues,” which begins: “I miss you / and you’re not even born yet.”
Another admirable quality of this book is its stylistic variations. Too often, poets write poems that all look virtually identical on the page. Not so with Ungar. Some have the short, breathy lines reminiscent of the shorter works of William Carlos Williams. Others (like “Blanche’s Tale”) have a longer, more narrative format that plays with dropped lines and italics. While this is chiefly a book about pregnancy and motherhood, there’s rich variation within that subject, as well. In “Prenatal Yoga,” the narrator ironically notes that the prenatal yoga teacher is the only woman in the room without two hearts. In “Transference,” Ungar writes of women who “…fall in love / with their obstetrician” whose “…small hands travel where no / others do… / while your husband turns away.”
One of the best, most ingenious poems here is “Izaak Laughing,” written to the poet’s son (now a toddler). The poem details the horrors described in the daily newspaper then goes on to say:
You pull yesterday’s horrors from the rack,
shred them, stuff some in your mouth
and work like cud. You sit
so beautifully, upright and plumb,
smiling young Buddha
who eats all suffering.
Given that “Izaak” comes from the Hebrew word for laughter (a fact noted in the beginning of the poem), “Izaak Laughing” can be seen as the melding of at least two major world religions, not to mention the acknowledgement of world suffering and, on a more personal level, the narrator’s honest, deeply human need for consolation—a consolation that comes in the form of her child doing what children do best. The loving humor of this poem belies its underlying motif of redemption from destruction. Ungar is a poet who successfully navigates the provocative waters of honesty and emotion without giving in to cliché and over-sentimentality—something too many contemporary poets are afraid to even try.
Another favorite of mine, “Why There Aren’t More Poems About Toddlers,” humorously describes similar child-wrought havoc:
…while you shower
he microwaves potholders, salts the teapot,
peppers the sofa, pours milk on rugs;
because he’s magnetized by knives
scissors water & electricity.
What seems at first to be just a funny, anxiety-tinged poem about a mother trying to find time to write while simultaneously keeping her child from destroying the house and/or himself (a common experience, say my writer-friends with children) then takes this heart-wrenching turn:
…with luck, he will leave
for school and break your heart.
And still you’ll wonder, where
did it all go?
What’s interesting and masterful about this poem is not just its seamless emotional turns but how the pronoun in the last line can be applied equally to all manner of things, from the writer’s inspiration (and writing supplies) to the actual havoc wrought by the toddler, which the narrator might one day grow to miss.
Although the poems of The Origin of the Milky Way all center on a similar theme, this book is a melting pot (or is salad the new, prevailing metaphor these days?) of many different emotions and insights, a labor of love in the truest sense. I’m glad to recommend these lyrical brave, often witty narratives to everyone, and I count myself lucky to have this thoroughly dog-eared volume on my shelf.
Michael Meyerhofer’s second book, Blue Collar Eulogies, was published by Steel Toe Books. His first, Leaving Iowa, won the Liam Rector First Book Award. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Quick Fiction and other journals. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.