In “The Invited Rejection,” Leah Umansky writes
This is the place of flowering. I tulip in the idea of it. I juniper in
the sighs. I don’t want the imagining, I want the real. See? Can
you see? Say that you can. Say it with me. I see you.
Umansky exalts in words and word-play, conflict and feminism, and the final joy of communion with us: the reader, America, the self. As I read The Barbarous Century, I heard echoes of Walt Whitman as the poems root, mourn, and celebrate the America of this truly barbarous time. With vast and great-hearted strokes, Umansky invites the reader to “Let us count that you regard/and I regard/the changing of the tides.” The poet tells us to “let the gutter turn operatic/I will sing of the heart.”
The pageantry and exuberance of this book, which exalts pop icons of our time, is effusive. While I was thinking of Walt Whitman, I found myself humming the song “I Sing the Body Electric,” from the iconic 1980s movie, “Fame.” And to paraphrase from “Jerry Maguire,” Umansky had me at Man Men and Game of Thrones. The poem, “In My Next Life, I Want to be an Ad Man,” utilizes the character of Don Draper—the damaged, brilliant, and hedonistic anti-hero from the series—to play with words, joy, and conflict.
I wanted to donned in somehow. Donned
in everything. Donned in the forgotten and
ecclesiastics of sex. Drape me in the
charged. Draped me in the raptured . . . .
Umansky’s middle section in this triptych, “People Want Their Legends,” uses female characters from Mad Men and Game of Thrones to embody a female struggle. Peggy and Joan, Kahleesi and Cersei, “conquer” a man’s world (of Madison Avenue in the 1960s-70s, of The Seven Kingdoms). These women, who are streamed across the country weekly or daily, become part of The Barbarous Century’s expansiveness, its “American-ness.” Joan, the secretary who is made partner in the advertising firm, is described in mythic terms
He treats Joan like she came out
of that goddamn Trojan horse with the soldiers
all woman, all beauty and power-hungry as
hell. She’s everything a man is and more.
Cersei, too, embodies this grand, dual-image of a female-ness that rejects or embraces old definitions. Using the famous “walk of shame,” Umansky lays out the choices presented to women, followed by the Septa’s ringing, humiliating “shame.” By placing the female conflict in the “procession of thrones,” Umansky elevates it to prominence and even joy. “The nightingale, the wolf, the horse,/the woman, yes, the woman,/we all have the same thirst.”
It’s rare for books of poetry to celebrate joy, but it has become so necessary. The jewel of this collection is Umansky’s unabashed and personal love, despite grief and confusion.
. . . . whatever is bright. Whatever
Cluster around me.
I emit light. [nothing] I halo what I
love for others. [nothing]
I will construct my own team: the love-orphans.
Just as Umansky embraces the jubiiance of Whitman and the idealization of the media stars, so does she challenge the dystopian view of Yeats, in her poem, “Sometimes the Angels are Devils, inspired by W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming,’”
These are troubling times with such hallowed intensity
Last night, I was a star. I was in orbit and the while of light was glorious. Last
night, I picked up my own force, to keep the good going; and the sad
pushed off, into the past, and back-borne.
The Barbarous Century does not reject the struggles of our present time. Echoing Yeats again, Umansky posits, “This is the way the world will go,” while at the same time, knowing that the “. . . . door of the future could be through this page . . . .” Leah Umansky lays out a way to live, fighting “behind the scenes.” “The wild joy is in the speaking,” Umansky writes in “Survival.” Umansky asks of us, “Reader, what do you know of muteness? of the world so strange. . . .” The Barbarous Century is a heart-breaking collection, that begs us to “Reach me.”
Jennifer Martelli was born and raised in Massachusetts, and graduated from Boston University and The Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program for Writers. She’s taught high school English as well as women’s literature at Emerson College in Boston.
Her work has appeared, or will appear, in the following publications: The Denver Quarterly, Folio, Calliope, Kalliope, The Mississippi Review, The Bellingham Review, Kindred, Bitterzoet, ZigZag Folio, The Inflectionist Review, Sugared Water, Slippery Elm, Tar River Review and Bop Dead City. She was a finalist for the Sue Elkind Poetry Prize and a recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. Her chapbook, “Apostrophe,” was published in 2011 by BigTable Publishing Company.
Image:Poor Farm with ColorsAlex Kanevsky18 x 18 inchesoil on wood2017