Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life - A Review

Our thanks to Word Works, and particularly to its president Nancy White, for (against all odds) sending us a review copy of this book.

Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life
Barbara Louise Ungar
Word Works Books
2011 Hilary Tham Capital Collection publication.
ISBN13 978-0-915380-79-4
Charlotte Brontë, you ruined my life is a poetry book by Barbara Louise Ungar where the author explores her difficult personal journey through divorce(s), personal hell(s) and what seems to be a window for hope and recovery. Paraphrasing Zoe Williams in a recent article in The Guardian, a sort of lyrical divorce memoir(1).

The poetical style of the author is limpid, forged with pristine images, musically harmonious phrases and smooth rhythm which, nevertheless, doesn't camouflage the bitterness, the implacability or the conspicuous sense of score-settling with men and with those female writers (like the Charlotte in the title, but also Emily) which elevated Byronism to the category of sexually irresistible. Sometimes this acidity mixed with popular culture provides unsettling but tantalising results (like the poem Rosemary's Divorce(2)), other times the venom may go a bit too far and the poem feels more like an intellectual tantrum (like Why don't they just drop dead?).

The book is divided into three sections: Rosemary's Divorce, Ghost Bride (where the bottom of her personal hell is achieved) and Mystical Therapy, an attempt to put herself together through self-knowledge and acceptation.

Taking a closer look at the Brontës inside Barbara Louise Ungar's book, we find two explicit poems quoting from Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë: Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life and Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights: Only Emily. Charlotte's belongs to the first section of the book and Emily's to the final part and though the topics and much of what is said is very similar, the tempo and the feeling are quite different. As different the whole book sections are.

Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life begins, like the title suggests, as a J'accuse from the poet to the author who sells her Romantic ideas about brooding men with tortured pasts who, nevertheless, could become the epithome of romantic love and devotion. The communication between the author and the poet is not direct but channelled through the Hollywood imaginarium. The poem ends with a direct quote from not Charlotte's words but the 1944 reworking of Jane Eyre(3) read from the lips not of Charlotte's Rochester but Orson Welles's Rochester. The poet accuses as well as yearns for the romantic cliché à la Hollywood, being able to play the part and also looking at herself from outside with a sardonic smile.

Only Emily goes even further in this dichotomy because it is accepted from the very beginning. The quote from Wuthering Heights which nearly opens the poem comes not from Emily's words but from the script of Wuthering Heights 1939(4). The poet is no longer angry with Emily Brontë for selling her the wonders of the Heathcliffs of this world but with herself for not being able to behave like an Emily/Cathy but like an ordinary mortal with ordinary worries. This poem, born of self-awareness and with a powerful intimate sounding voice, shows some of the more beautiful lines ever written about Emily Brontë:
                           No coward soul is mine,
you sang, and skipped off into immortality:
the girl who asked Daddy for a whip

and got Heathcliff - the fury
                                       of scorned love,
an unmothered stone of rage.
Notes
(1) Zoe Williams,  Feminism in the 21st century, The Guardian (24 June 2011). Particularly her review of Aftermath by Rachel Cusk (excerpt published in Granta 115: The F Word. The book will be published next year) where the author says something that can be nicely used as a coda for this book:
I begin to notice, looking in through those imaginary brightly lit windows, that the people inside are looking out. I see the women, these wives and mothers, looking out. They seem happy enough, contented enough, capable enough: they are well dressed, attractive, standing around with their men and their children. Yet they look around, their mouths moving. It is as though they are missing something or wondering about something. I remember it so well, what it was to be one of them. Sometimes one of these glances will pass over me and our eyes will briefly meet. And I realise she can't see me, this woman whose eyes have locked with mine. It isn't that she doesn't want to, or is trying not to. It's just that inside it's so bright and outside it's so dark, and so she can't see out, can't see anything at all.
(2) The reference to Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is one of many constant references to popular and not so popular culture. The poems navigate through them but the reader doesn't feel overwhelmed by them. They are not present to épater the audience, they form a substrate from where the poems emerge and relate between themselves.
(3) Written by John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, Robert Stevenson and  Henry Koster (albeit uncredited)
(4) The script was signed by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. It is said that Sam Goldywn was unsatisfied with the tone of the screenplay so he asked several writers to rewrite it. John Huston was among them and apparently said that the script was perfect as it was.

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1 Comment
Leah said...
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Wow ! What a great review of a wonderful book of poems. A lyrical memoir of divorce, indeed !

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