Review: “Save Our Ship” by Barbara Ungar

Save Our Ship 
By Barbara Ungar
Ashland Poetry Books
71 pages
Available this fall at

SOS is a boundless collection that explores the place of women in our society and so much more. In “For Vincent Byrne, “ Ungar remembers an older poet, one she admired, one who has seemingly disappeared, and in the last stanza, wondering what happened to him, she asks, “If this world survives another quarter century will anyone come looking for me, and who will remember three of my poems?” I think about this question often and for Barbara, I have an answer, “How It Happens,” “Sheer,” and “After Zumba.” These poems resonate with me because of their seemingly simple narratives that morph into broader philosophical and societal questions. 

In “How It Happens,” Ungar explores the stark reality that anyone is capable of anything under the perfect storm of circumstances. Consider  how a captain could do the unthinkable like Captain Francesco Schettino who abandoned his ship during the Costa Concordia disaster leaving passengers to die. We don’t like to admit that we could do something unreasonable or even discuss this fact because that means we are closer to the edge than we would like anyone to know. I love the raw honesty of this piece: 

Maybe you yell & hit him thinking you can’t hurt him till he
hits back. Maybe his hands around your neck you see crimson
you’re choking him back & if there were a gun someone could
be dead. Maybe he throws you across the room somehow
you’re out on the street running sniveling everyone steers clear.
Maybe you call someone. Maybe he says it’s safe to come
home it will never happen again. Maybe he’s sorry fills the
house with a hundred roses. 

Writing this piece from the second person point of view allows the reader to place themselves into what is happening. This piece shows how out of control a situation can become, how we can find ourselves reacting and acting in ways that we never thought possible. This is not just a personal narrative, but has broader significance. At this time in our society, I believe it imperative that we look at how things happen, how they can be prevented and how we are all responsible for the shared well-being of the society in which we live This poem, while seemingly just about a domestic issue, transcends into a conversation about our society at-large. 

Before, I get to “Sheer,” I need to touch upon how one of the major themes in this collection involves the complexity of love. The placement of poems assists in the collection’s overall impact. Ungar masterfully organizes the poems throughout. In the second poem in the collection, “Accident Report,” Ungar personifies love showing how resilient it is:

The car’s wrecked but Love
limps away shivering crouches in bracken
to call AAA with shaking hands

Then again, toward the end of the collection, in “Venus With a Mirror,” she plays with personification in connection with the goddess of love. The placement of this poem reminds the reader not only about the complexity of love, but also displays how multifaceted Ungar’s work is. I mention the placement of these two particular poems before discussing “Sheer” because this piece discusses how the narrator visits an old lover who is moving away with his new wife. Placement allows the reader a deeper understanding of Ungar’s intentions. After saying goodbye, the narrator walks out onto the street where she almost walks right in front of an SUV, but is warned by a pizza delivery guy on bike. The last lines in this piece just like in “Accident Report”, demonstrate Ungar’s keen sense of humor. 

Thank you! I cried. Not being dead yet. My guardian angel gone,
to bring someone pizza. I fixed the umbrella, looked both ways, and
walked on water across the street. 

Again, Ungar shows us how fast events occur, how we can be here in one second and gone the next. Which brings me to the last poem and the last poem in the collection, “After Zumba,” where the narrator sees someone throwing out flowers and dumpster dives, brings home the imperfect blooms because, “We, too, have gone soft and a bit brown around the edges. We’ve had our wedding feasts—clutched the fated bouquets and tossed them—some more than once.” Aren’t the flowers in so many ways symbolic of love in general, put in vases to decorate a life well-lived? Oddly enough, the first poem in the collection, “The Diverse Vices of Women, Alphabetized,” a concrete poem shaped like a “V” seems like the empty vase filled by a brilliant bouquet of poems by the end of the collection. Even though “The Diverse Vice of Women, Alphabetized,” has a more ominous meaning, the piece as an introduction bookended with “After Zumba” shows the lengths that women have travelled, the ground that they have gained. 

So, yes, at least three poems will be remembered, but I have to admit, possibly more because Ungar’s poem about the murder of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, an Egyptian poet and activist and the hilarious poem about shooting into Hurricane Irma are just as memorable. Ungar makes you think profoundly about injustices one minute and then chuckle the next. This collection is eclectic, well balanced and memorable.