The Barbarous Century by Leah Umansky
Eyewear publishing, 2018. 106 pages
Reviewed by DM O’Connor
Don’t make light of my personal experiences
for I am also red-wheeled and screaming.
Each of us must make do in the best way we can.
Love and duty are not always aligned.
But for me, they are a steady rung I climb.
Leah Umansky’s, The Barbarous Century is answering the big questions with positivity. How to be strong and true and honest in a world gone bad? Why do what we do? How and why to belong? How to look at ourselves in the mirror? How to talk to ourselves properly? What is time? What is love? Why?
The Barbarous Century is a dense collection of lyric free verse, satisfying wordplay, and formal self-analysis. When is the last time a sestina left you with hope rather than melancholy? Sure, we all must lie to get through the day-to-day, but in Umansky’s “Sestina,” the lies we live are manageable:
Some of us might inspire other elements to action, but I stand
Alone and it is not evolutionary. It is barely manageable.
It is practically a lie,
But one worth telling. I am bold in this lie I raise to my lips.
I salute the readiness of myself and I manipulate the rest.
For the joy of no longer standing alone, that bold sprig is best left to blossom.
Page after page, Umansky ends on the upbeat. Sixty poems are divided into three sections. Each section has the depth and breadth to stand alone as a collection. The reader gets their money’s worth. The first section is the most narrative, anchored by prose poems which challenge our wants and desires. Whitmanesque arias describe heartbreak and survival over tribulation. Philosophies of kindness slip through anecdotes in couplets.
The middle section turns cheeky, delving into technology, gender politics, and pop culture. Several poems are conversations with Don Draper from Madmen but are so universal, having seen the series only adds extra layers. On the surface, “IN MY NEXT LIFE, I WANT TO BE AN AD MAN” can be read as a witty riposte to the TV show but scratch a little and the glossy varnish of repression, chauvinism, and lust peels to reveal stark realities:
I want to be donned in somehow. Donned
in everything. Donned in the forgotten and
the ecclesiastics of sex. Drape me in the
charged. Drape me in the rapture. Drape
me in meaning and keep it private. I want
two lives: one in the city and one in the
country. Two women: a blonde and a
redhead. Don me in wealth. Drape me in
booze. Don me in diamonds and fur. Drape
a secretary, here, and then, there.
The third section turns internal, solipsistic, almost therapeutic. In “POEM IN WHICH I ADDRESS MYSELF,” Umansky looks in the mirror:
Let’s see where the kick is here. Writing is creating.
This poem is a creation. Is it monumental? (no)
Will it change the world? (unlikely)
Can it be backdrop for a natural process where the world
keeps gurgling, keeps destroying and rebuilding.
Yes, it can—and does. The poet is debating Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Descartes, Roland Barthes, us and themselves. The Barbarous Century is constantly reminding and asking the reader and writer to listen and look better, like a little bell of mindfulness, but in symphonic proportions. Umansky is not to be read lightly or quickly. In fact, keep the book beside your computer or TV and every time that post or tweet or soundbite tries to drag you into the pointless ether of what is called news or urgent, open The Barbarous Century randomly, read a poem aloud, then quietly to yourself. I promise you will feel better.
DAVID MORGAN O'CONNOR is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.