Saturday, June 11, 2016

Poet Barbara Ungar on Cherubs, Daggers, and the Milky Way

Venus with a Mirror
                                      after Titian
Titian, Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555

Love expects her own radiance to last
forever.
              Her large soft body,
doughy belly and arms
no woman today would want,
                                               but the face—
supermodel gorgeous,            
                                   glorious
in golden curls braided with pearls—
looks over her shoulder.
                                       Behind her
a cherub’s about to bonk her over the head
with a wreath.
                        Beside her
another sturdy cherub holds up
the heavy mirror.

                           Between them           
                                               
                                                   the vertical
slice of her 
                  framed by the mirror
                                                    doesn’t match
one large dark eye
                              spooked
like a horse
                    the flesh beneath it sags
                                                            She sees
what any woman sees
                                   in a mirror                                                   
her worst
                 The old woman
                                           rising toward her
a goblin shark
                        The dark wood frame
                                                            closing
a coffin lid.


Rembrandt’s Lucretia *

Rembrandt van Rijn, Lucretia, 1666
Look at her mouth,
crumpling like a child’s about to cry.

Her half-shadowed face
haloed in lush hair and subtle gems.

Her gold robes spread like a bell
around her, white chemise

open from breastbone to belly,
echoing the slit, the cureless

wound she’s carved on her
house fortress mansion temple tree.

The loving dagger still
clutched in her right hand,

she’s painted the unseen
on her side in good red blood—

Vagina: Latin for scabbard.


In Tintoretto’s Origin of the Milky Way **

Jupiter coasts in, thrusting
baby Hercules at
Juno’s breast. She sprawls

Tintoretto,  ca.1575–1580
naked, her luxe Venetian bed
entangled in cloud. Four
cherubim zoom in with bow

and arrows; her peacocks
watch. Shining rays
spray from her nipples:

the right streaming down to plant
lilies in earth; the left shooting
up—past the bastard

infant’s head and her bangled
arm upflung into sky­—
to flower in ten golden stars.

All the faces, even her mask
of perfection, gaze
at that miracle of milk. Startled

awake, she leans back,
bare foot treading
thundercloud, one hand open

above all their heads,
as if she, goddess of childbirth,
had just flung new-

born stars. The astonishment
of milk arcing out
into space, her stranger body

showering in spontaneous creation.

The Brank * 
                        Lithograph, 1984, by Leon Golub, Am. b. 1922

In the museum of beautiful nudes,
why do I choose the most hideous?
I wanted those etchings
of women growing out of trees,
the lines of their bodies mirroring
hills, or boughs, or pears . . .

But this—shit brown, red
smeared like blood—this ugliness
won’t shut up. Did they really
have those bunny ears, like some jokey
S & M costume, or Madonna’s next tour?

Brank, [etymology unknown. from Ir. brancas, halter?]          
           vb. (obs.) To prance; to hold up and toss the head;
                  applied to horses as spurning the bit. [Scot. & Prov. Eng.]

               gossip’s bridle
                 dame’s bridle
                   hag’s harness
                      witch’s bridle
                        scold’s helm

            a Brydle for a curste queane

In a vast profusion of fantastical and sometimes artistic styles
                                                                                  
A locking iron muzzle, metal mask, or cage,
 hinged to enclose the head
  often of great weight

The victim’s mouth was clamped shut
 by an iron band under the chin
  a flat piece of iron forced

inside her mouth, sometimes sharpened
 to a point, or studded with spikes,
  spurs, or a rowel

                            The whole contraption
fastened round the neck with a heavy padlock
                                                                  
The designs were left up to the imagination
 of the blacksmith

                                 Some shaped like pigs’ heads
Some had asses’ ears
                                and huge spectacles
                                                                      Some,
a bell on a spring to draw jeers
                                                       Some, a chain—

Ancient houses had a hook fixed beside the fireplace
 if she nagged too much the town
  gaoler would bring the community bridle

Every respectable settlement in England or Scotland had one 
                                                                               
Sometimes she was drawn around town on a cart
 in the ‘gagging chair’ or ‘tewe’

Sometimes the bit forced blood out
 at the slightest movement
  of the head or twitch of the halter

Sometimes she was led on a rope like a pack animal

Sometimes she was chained to the market-cross
 in the town square

Sometimes she was smeared with feces and urine

Sometimes wounded fatally,
 especially her breasts and between her legs

And padlocked on women convicted of witchcraft
 so they could not scream their horrible curses
  while burning at the stake—


All the nudes are speechless.

* from Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life, The Word Works, 2011
** From The Origin of the Milky Way, Gival Press, 2007




Barbara Ungar has published four books of poetry. Her most recent, Immortal Medusa, was chosen as one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Indie Poetry Books of 2015. Prior books include Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life and The Origin of the Milky Way, which won the Gival Prize, an Independent Publishers Silver Medal, the Adirondack Center for Writing Poetry Award, and a Hoffer award. Ungar is professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, where she coordinates the MFA program.