I stumbled across the poetry of Barbara Ungar a few years ago—in much the same way that a hungry man rounds the corner and spots a welcoming restaurant, or a lonely fetishist discovers the internet. Her blend of wit and wisdom (two qualities I find essential in life, let alone writing) spoke to me right away, so I was both pleased and nervous when she recently submitted a body of her recent poems to Atticus Review.
That I was pleased hardly requires any explanation, once you read Barbara’s work and experienced firsthand her poignant, lyrical-narrative style. That I was nervous, though, is something that fellow editors in particular will understand. Although Barbara and I have never met face to face, we’ve corresponded enough that I consider her a friend, and no friend wants to reject another friend’s work. As a rule, though, I won’t sign off on anything that I personally don’t care for, so if anything, I tend to be even more critical on submitters whose names I recognize.
Luckily, Barbara made it extremely easy on me by being, as usual, the kind of unassuming, badass poet that reminds us of the power and potential of language. For instance, “Blue Whale” and “Does Anyone Know a Spell to Turn Into a Mermayd that Really Works” are poignant snapshots of human life and mortality that remind me of the wise yet eminently accessible poems of Li Po—and in that sense, are tapping into something universal that is both present in and transcendent of time.
But Barbara Ungar is not a writer who is stuck orbiting a single sentiment; instead, she is capable of fascinating range, risk, and experimentation. “Sarah” is a gutsy poem that doesn’t so much risk offending Christian Fundamentalists (I’m pretty sure they’re not our target audience, anyway) as it does take on the tall order of revisiting, and essentially rewriting, a classic Biblical myth. The results (especially that killer of a final stanza) speak for themselves.
“Kabbalah Barbie” is a complex poem that manages to be both funny and disturbing while furthering the social commentary hinted at in Barbara’s other poems. Also, it contains lots of references to make your inner history/odd fact nerd stand up and cheer.
Lastly, “VA” is another fine example of Barbara’s range, written in a contemporary “eastern” style based on imagery and minimalism, a kind of lyrical magic trick where less is more and even the blank space on the page seems wrought, deliberate, and oddly beautiful.
Photo by Emma Dodge Hanson