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Sample Poems by Barbara Ungar

As in Dreams You Swim with Whales

You didn’t even know it was endangered, it was so  

friendly every snorkelling tourist at the Mauiian
visited the great sea tortoise
in the reef off the hotel beach.

You had to search and search the strange underwater  

garden without landmarks
until (your gasp
magnified by snorkel gear)

it slipped out from greygreen coral—

gliding upwards with majestic
slowness and calm,
flapping its legs like wings,

the great turtle rose to the surface

where you dead-man-floated
till you could meet those ancient
netted eyes that seemed scrutable.

You reached out and stroked the satin  

shell before, with a flick of its wing-
like legs, it vanished. Next time, it seemed to beckon
you to play, C’mon, swimming slow

enough for you to follow, enchanted,

to its secret lair
where you could frolic with seals and dolphins
as in dreams you swim with whales

until you picked your head up from the water’s pillow

and saw how the tortoise was leading you on and out
into open ocean, far from the curving hotel strip,
the tiny umbrellas.  The tide already strong against you

ripping you out.  Was this not your friend

but the snake of the sea
wreaking its small revenge on your stupid race?  
Seeing how far you would go before you realized you had gone too far.  

You didn’t know you weren’t supposed to touch it.


I want my grandmother, Anya, but she’s in bed
with a wolf.  The wolf eats Anya up.  The wolf
is Anya:  she ate my father’s

left eye, and stuffed cabbage with his heart,
the poor woodcutter.  She came
sledding down from Transylvania in her coffin,

swam the Atlantic and stalked across America,
a werewolf frisking at her shadow.  She
can teach me.  She knows everything, being dead

and undead:  Anya fattens on my thin blood
and kicks sharpest at the full moon, when I
skip off to find her,

when my hair’s thicker, and I’m
starving.  I need to know how to live
with this wolf.  See—there he is—loping easily

alongside no matter how fast I run, in and out
the tangled wood, tongue lolling, garlic breath
grinning at my little hood
red as blood when it first meets air.
Smarter than the three pigs, Grandma, you
invited him right into your   
nightgown. You old hairy thing, madwoman,
what big eyes
you have.  I know you’ll eat me.  Just let me

tell you a story first:  how
when we’re in the beast’s belly,
underneath your flannel,

the woodcutter’s ax rings, a bloody
door swings open, and you and I,
hand in hand, spring out unscathed.


After arranging the peonies, I scoop
crazed ants off the counter

with delicate paper coaxings, and,
by my third transport

across the grass to the peony bush, wonder
if they could find their own way

home from the front
steps (like pets who navigate

the continent) or if they’d be devoured
by enemy armies (an ant Iliad)

and what tales
do they tell the colony

of alien abduction
(the A-Files?)

and of the strangeness of formica
and this paper plane.