Save Our Ship
The Ashland Poetry Press
Reviewer: Vivian Wagner
Impending apocalypses of various kinds—personal, cultural, and environmental—thread through Barbara Ungar’s new poetry collection, Save Our Ship. The etymological root of “apocalypse” means to uncover or reveal, and this collection underscores that at the heart of all apocalypses is both a heartbreaking sense of loss and an unlikely hope for the future.
Save Our Ship is an abecedarian collection of sorts. It opens with a piece called “The Diverse Vices of Women, Alphabetized,” essentially a version of the 1454 list compiled by Archbishop Antoninus of Florence “to teach women to control their sensual appetites” – an alphabetical cataloguing of women’s vices, from “Avid Animal” to “Zealous jealousy.” In many ways, Ungar’s collection takes its organization and spirit from this poem, responding to, mocking, and ultimately refiguring its inherent misogyny.
The title of Save Our Ship comes from the letters in Morse code’s “SOS”—a cry for help when a ship is sinking. The ship in this collection takes the form of various bodies and selves, from speakers in the poems to the earth itself. Together the poems play with letters and alphabets, including Morse code, which finds its way into some of the poems and the space beneath each poem title. Sometimes the Morse code beneath a title refers to a letter in that title, and sometimes it doesn’t, suggesting a garbled transmission or a gap in meaning. It’s up to the reader to make sense of the fragments and pieces that this collection’s apocalypses generate.
“Accident Report” is the first of the collection’s alphabetized poems, and it opens with an accident, which serves as a sort of origin story:
Love skids slowly into the guardrail
wearing a negligee but no seat belt
tricked by a slick of black ice
Love finds its way into a number of poems in the collection—as something that makes loss painful, even as it serves as a way to survive apocalypse. “Accident Report,” though it’s about loss and destruction, is also a poem of survival: “The car’s wrecked but Love / limps away shivering.” Love, though uncertain and shaken, seems key to surviving all manner of apocalypses.
Another poem about loss, “The Blues Sister,” opens with a missing handbag: “At work that morning, found my handbag / gone.” That the speaker finds the handbag missing is a paradox of language and image. Later, she finds it for real:
Home hours late to a dark
house and the missing bag
on the bed where I left it.
Sometimes loss is imagined, and the missing item is not actually gone. Or, perhaps, we didn’t own the thing, person, or environment to begin with. And, in the end, one’s loss can become another’s gain, as the poem suggests in its final lines:
and carrion birds drift
among the smaller flocks.
There must be something dead
Even death, the poem suggests, brings a bounty to some vulture or another. All is never truly lost.
The loss or imagined loss of the handbag echoes the impending loss of the planet itself, and a coming environmental catastrophe looms over every poem in the collection. The simple and heartbreaking poem, “Elegy,” for instance, lists words that have been culled from the 2018 Oxford Junior Dictionary, all of them related to the natural world, also organized alphabetically, from “acorn” to “willow.” Words that have been added to the dictionary are tagged onto the bottom of the poem like an anthropogenic addendum: “attachment” to “voice-mail.” The poem is an elegy for all that’s lost, linguistically and in our consciousness, when we turn away from a planet that we’re killing.
“Endnotes to Coral Reefs” takes the form of endnotes to an imaginary essay, all of them referring to facts about coral reefs and their demise: “Oases of ocean” and “The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space.” It ends with the following line, suggesting that humans are both like and unlike sea creatures: “We are sticking our heads in the sand.”
Sometimes the losses catalogued in this book are on a seemingly smaller scale, as indicated in “Wedding with First Boyfriend,” which opens as follows:
After forty years, we know everything
that can and does go wrong—five divorces
The world of this poem is confined to relationships, but the sense of loss and doom echoes the sense of loss that pervades the poems about the environment, suggesting a continuum of loss in human existence, and that perhaps we could better understand what’s happening with the earth if we could start to understand what’s happening interpersonally.
The poem ends with a sense of wonder and amazement about the process of loss and change:
How was this man defeated, who used to sing
and play me Lay Lady Lay on his guitar?
Who, driving to the movies, used to kiss
my fingers in the dark of the car
The speaker wonders how such loss can happen, how that young innocent man could have been destroyed by a life of discovering how cruel and unpredictable the world can be. At the same time, it suggests that by remembering the boy who the man once was might give some means of survival. Perhaps we can move forward into a frightening, falling-apart future only by drawing strength from what is gone.
The title poem of the collection, “Save Our Ship,” details the slow sinking of a ship which seems to be, in essence, the planet itself. Shot through with images of the Anthropocene, from “seagreen plastic” to “[t]he tide of pink jellyfish / big as washing machines,” the poem is a cry for help: SOS, Save Our Ship. It ends with the Morse code for SOS repeated over and over, in a repetition that is at once doomed and hopeful.
The poem captures the spirit of the entire collection, with its many ships going down, and its many and various cries for help. “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” the poem exclaims, and it is, in the end, the collection’s rallying cry. If only we could wake up, perhaps we could find help. Or, perhaps, we could even save ourselves.