by Theodora Goss
I think there should be two words that mean ugly,
because there are two kinds of ugliness.
The first kind is the ugliness of an ogre
whose nose resembles a turnip, with three hairs
on his chin as long and sharp as knitting needles
and teeth the color of piano keys —
the black ones. Or the witch in a ragged coat
who stands beside the road and poses riddles,
her voice a broken phonograph, skeletal hands
that clutch at you. Depending on how you answer
she will give you her little finger, cut with a knife
at the first joint, or send you on with a curse.
Her fingerbone will unlock your brother’s prison;
the curse will leave you lost, alone in the woods.
It’s the ugliness of an inn where pirates gather
to sign contracts in blood, swearing by the Devil.
Or marshes and waste spaces that have no use;
they stubbornly insist on remaining wild —
impassable bogs, thickets filled with thorns,
ruled by the spotted yellow queen of snakes.
It’s the ugliness of stepsisters chopping off
their toes for beauty, the beast with a warthog’s tusks
in a brocade waistcoat who slobbers on your hands
(which you belatedly realize is a kiss)
and asks you to marry him.
It’s the ugliness of a toadstool or a toad,
an honest ugliness. If you look closely,
you’ll see it’s more like beauty than you thought,
two sides of a coin, one polished, one rusted,
but the same coin: it will still buy you bread.
The second kind is the ugliness of a scar
where the forest has been cleared for electrical wires,
shining cables carried by metal giants,
an anthropomorphic army marching across
the landscape through suburbs of identical houses
with identical lawns — no hedges left for nests,
or holes for foxes, or undergrove where a doe
can hide her fawns. Until they reach a city
of concrete towers whose windows replace the stars
at night, or in the daytime become mirrors
in which we see only ourselves.
The first is an ugliness that makes us fear
or fight; the second fills us with despair
The word has a noble etymology:
from the Old Norse, in which”ugga” means “to dread,”
as we dread winter, lightning, or the gods.
I say we return the word to its ancient meaning
and use it only for what is truly dreadful:
let ugliness refer to toads and ogres
and choose another word for what we make
ugly and dull — too human, in our likeness
so when we look at the world, we see ourselves
That way at least we’ll maintain a distinction
and understand what it is we’re talking about.
(The illustration is by Anne Anderson, for the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast.”)