Barbara Ungar
Immortal Medusa

The Word Works
ISBN: 978-0-915380-93-0

Reviewer: Ann Wehrman

          In her new collection, Immortal Medusa, Barbara Ungar navigates humor, dark abandon, and ecstasy, her poems shimmering with refined attention to craft. Topics include reflections on daily life, spirituality, and Judaism as well as Ungar’s love for her late father and devotion to her son.

          In the wistful, “A Spell to Turn into a Meremayd,” the speaker describes the “ama, or ocean-/ women, divers after pearls, seaweed and shellfish/ in elegant prints by Utamaro—,” explaining that these women have produced an income from “free-div[ing] in frigid waters/ for thousands of years,/ a hundred feet per breath, sixty/ dives a day, well into their eighties.” Ungar ends with:

So I keep diving, though I have
other work and am not good enough,
to see what I can retrieve
from the deep floor where
pearls are formed in secret.

          One realizes Ungar’s passion to plumb the depths of her psyche, much as the ama plumb the waters, in order to harvest verse that transcends style and craft, expressing hard-won understanding of the central issues of love, death, and eternity.

          Ungar’s poems often begin with imagery rooted solidly in the physical world; then, as the pieces near conclusion, there is a subtle shift in allusion to the world of mind, soul, and spirit. In this way, Ungar shifts her focus from the sensory to the metaphysical. One observes this process in “Not Joan,” an alternate view of the voyage of Noah’s ark, which opens with concrete narrative description,

the ark was dark and we all were trapped
children and animals and the stink
I was the one had to clean up
the shit and I was the one got blamed
for rotten food…

          However, “Not Joan” ultimately moves inward, revealing the speaker’s bleak anguish and inner purity as she suffers brutality at the hands of her struggling man:

                       …my name
was never written or pronounced
my name like G-d’s is a secret

          The collection is dedicated to Ungar’s deceased father, Frank Ungar (1922-2012), and to her son Izaak. The speaker’s reverence for her father shines through, although her eyes are open to his limitations, as shown in “My Father Looks at Vermeer for the Last Time,” which paints the decline of his flesh: “The old scientist leans on his walker,/ His remaining eye is rheumy”—and in “Sans Everything,” which highlights the humiliation of losing control over one’s body in old age and the terrible frustration of being confined:

He sits dignified as Geronimo’s last portrait,
though we found him with pants on the floor,
diaper around his ankles.

We have Beckett conversations:

            Are you a lion or a gorilla?
            I’m your daughter.
            When did they let you out of jail?


I escape, take my boy to the zoo,
full of fat Minnesotans with too many kids.
The polar bears’ concrete lair is hot.

The male, piss-stain yellow, huge beyond
belief, rears to ram his head repeatedly
up against the steel door handle—

(The reader may hear the echo of Dylan Thomas’s supplication, “And you, my father, there on the sad height,/ Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray./ Do not go gentle into that good night.”)

          At the risk of overgeneralizing, one might say that girls especially love their fathers. That dynamic illuminates those of Ungar’s poems that are addressed to her late father, verses that are earnest, sympathetic memorials. In “The V.A.,” Ungar structures the poem’s nine stanzas over nine pages, one brief stanza surrounded by a lake of white space on each page. The tenderness and ragged sorrow of her loss sounds through the minimalist form and short lines, as with, “snowless winter/ old soldiers/ fight for breath,” and “waning moon—/ each visit less/ of him left.”

          Immortal Medusa
is not simply a tribute to Ungar’s father, though. Perhaps Ungar’s dedication of Immortal Medusa to her son as well as to her deceased father signifies the poet’s innate sense of the continuity of life. The young man’s audacity and nonchalance are characterized in “Giraffes”:

I, too, was once young enough
to take giraffes for granted.


I say to Izaak,
who shrugs, I already
saw ’em
, and turns away.

Can we go look at the snakes?

The poet writes of life, death, and eternity, questing with delicate lyricism, philosophical depth, and spirituality informed by Judaism, though these poems will be relevant to readers of all spiritual persuasions. Death is seen as final, yet the speculation lingers that life after death may be real, at least in the memories of those still living. This paradox is suggested in the opening poem, “Dead Letters,” in which the speaker muses about receiving letters “addressed to an old man/ I loved. Phillip,/ lover of horses”:

Every envelope with your name

I rip open (forbidden
and uncanny), I hope

bears the message
you are somewhere—

I would forward them.

          In the potent “Kabbalah Barbie,” the speaker argues with rich, self-deprecating humor for the equality and respect women deserve:

…You think
dolls can’t pray? If everything is One,
that includes plastic. Barbie is a spark of G-d,
just as much as Britney Spears. I was created
in your image, as you are in HaShem’s.


…Before Barbies, there were rag dolls,

corn husk dolls, clay goddess figurines—
(me and my bazooms a corrupt remnant
of those ancient mysteries). If you keep
going back, through the primordial light
that always shines on us, even at night,

from the blast of creation—the universe
compressed to a point tinier than my pupil,
a spark of impenetrable darkness
, my head perfectly
empty as the vacuum it emanates from…
Anyway, that’s what I like to think about,
when I’m not trying on new outfits.

          The poem itself grins as it pokes around for answers, then ends with a perhaps mordant joke that clearly stereotypes Barbie in time-worn ways. Secure in her feminine wisdom and poetic power, Barbara Ungar has covered much ground with Immortal Medusa. She will surely discover more inner mountains to climb and oceans to plumb as she continues her search to understand and convey what in life is truly of value.

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