(Reviewing Barbara Louise Ungar’s Charlotte Bronte, You Ruined My Life for the November Chronogram poetry roundup, Lee Gould observed that “Ungar’s far-reaching third collection treats, in various ways, failed love…Although heart-wrenching and sometimes angry, the poems are witty and always musical.” On Sunday, November 27th, Ungar will read with other poets from the roundup at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock at 4 pm. Here she describes the background to her poem, “The Middle-Aged Mermaid.”)
“Why do you hate Disney?” I was once asked at a reading, much to my surprise. I had read my poem “Against Disneyland,” and I wanted to answer with another question: Why do grown-ups go to Disneyworld for their honeymoon or anniversary? Another Disney-spin-off poem, “The Middle-Aged Mermaid,” I don’t read as often, because it’s not as funny. I have a young son, so I have watched way more Disney videos way more times than is healthy: on the gazillionth time, I would find myself deconstructing them, which led to a panel on “Death Mothers of Disney” at a Pop Culture Conference (comparing Ursula the Sea-Witch to Circe from the Odyssey, and the witch-dragon from Sleeping Beauty to the ancient serpent-goddess archetype, if you really want to know). “The Little Mermaid” particularly bugs me because, while pretending its plucky heroine is feminist, it actually reinscribes patriarchy in a gruesome way: fast-forward to the Prince steering his phallic, jagged ship’s prow right into the hyperinflated womb of the hypersexual (though older and unmarried), power-mad blonde, Ursula, who explodes, restoring Daddy (whom Ursula has shriveled like an old man’s dick) to his rightful throne (where he expands as if on Viagra), so the nubile daughter can be safely delivered into marriage. We let kids watch this?
My poem has more to do, however, with the ghastly version by Hans Christian Anderson. My parents had gone to Copenhagen on their honeymoon, so the lovely Little Mermaid statue overlooking the harbor is deeply imprinted, along with my mother’s reading me that tale. Since we’re Jewish, the Christian-martyr ending was lost on me: the little mermaid does not win the prince; she dies on the day of his wedding to the other woman, but gains an immortal soul for her silent suffering. Ick. What stayed with me, as vivid as the statue’s image, was the notion of every step cutting like a knife: what could that feel like, I wondered. Many decades of dance classes later, crippled by arthritis, I found out—which inspired this poem:
The Middle-Aged Mermaid
Put out your little tongue, and I shall cut it off in payment; then your tail will split in two, and every step you take will be like treading on a sharp knife. —Hans Christian Anderson, “The Little Mermaid”
I who undulated like an eel now mince on knife-point.
My iridescence vanished like a netted fish’s—
blue water green water gold water black water silver
……..clear water like light
below………………………………all colors swam
……………..dull as sea glass
I do not recognize this hobbled creature
……her every step a swallowed tear
who limps down the marble stair at night
….to soothe her bleeding soles in brine
Other women gave up
…………the breeze on their skin
…………………………………& in their hair—
always for love.
I was thinking about silencing and foot-binding, and their parallels to this myth, but also about genital mutilation, chadors and burkas. Not to mention the effects of culture (both literary and pop) upon impressionable young girls. Once I wrote the title poem, “Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life,” the collection evolved into a Dante-esque three-part structure: divorce, descent into hell, and rebirth; since Disneyland is my idea of Hell, the Disney poems went into the Inferno section, along with light-hearted contemplations of various forms of female mutilation and revenge fantasies. The title, Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life, is meant to be ironic—the whole book a spin-off on the culture that taught me to sacrifice myself for love. But in a good way.