Clock in the hall, tea in cups, Henry James
has come to call on George Eliot. “To begin with,”
he writes his father, “she is magnificently ugly,
deliciously hideous.” James is twenty–six—
forgive him for flexing his wit as his pen
strides under a lamp burning with whale oil,
and let’s go where ugly began, Old Norse,
Iceland riding a gash in the earth’s crust
so that slow kisses burble the stinking mud
and hot goo geysers in hairy splendor.
Offshore, the whale–roads are so thick
with monsters that were you nimble enough
you could dash across their breaching. Ugly,
ugglig, the choke and glub of drowning,
overcome outside your element
among the flowing families of swimmers
with faces not meant to be looked at.
Ugly is the mother of the sublime—dreadful
and magnetic, it sucks you over edges
with the torque of awe, so much like love
it must be love. “Now in this vast ugliness,”
James continues, “resides the most powerful
beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth
and charms the mind, so you end as I ended,
in falling in love with her.” And Eliot
in her horse–faced glory? All her life she’s watched
faces recoil and collect, pulling down their shades.
Her eyes open farther and farther, terrorizing
with tenderness as she peers through the viscous
heat that ego sizzles in, the flaps of pride
and currents of loneliness nursed on dumb hurts.
She reaches in and grabs the beating soul.
Michelle Boisseau has new poems appearing in the Cincinnati Review, the Missouri Review, Poetry, Shenandoah, and the Yale Review. Her fourth poetry collection, A Sunday in God-Years, was published by the University of Arkansas Press. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was awarded her second NEA fellowship in 2011. She still carries the kiss Sparky Anderson gave her on her seventeenth birthday, during the era of the Big Red Machine.
Ugglig appears in our Summer 2015 issue.