On the back cover of Leah Umansky’s first book, Domestic Uncertainties, Cornelius Eady refers to her as the literary daughter of Emily Dickinson. In fact, the title of this collection is taken from The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Even while many women writers have paved the way for Umansky’s collection about a broken marriage, Umansky manages to blaze her own trail, with a voice that harkens back to feminist literary icons of the past while simultaneously creating something new. The voice crying out from this wrecked romantic union seethes with bitterness, wit, defiance, and courage; the female speaker also remains dominant throughout the text, uncovering truths and barking orders at her lost lover:
It was all appositives.
You never loved.
Say it for me.
The book’s most lucid moments seem like a deep, philosophical quest.
The poems fluctuate back and forth in form, from prose poems to fragmented associative poems, to poems that have experimental layouts on the page. But in all forms Umansky seems concerned with discovery, and many of them feel like epiphanies. Consider these lines from “The Marital Space:“
Remember, memory is flexible.
How we make ourselves isn’t coincidental; it’s consequential.
And also these from “How We Make Ourselves:”
History always repeats itself, but the heart,
The heart uplifts and uproots. The heart
In these lines, the speaker triumphs in discovering what it means to rebuild the self after a shattered relationship, and the end result seems to be a sense of deep self reflection and endurance. These moments delight, because they take risks and carry such heavy truths.
Umansky takes formal risks in this collection as well. She crafts most of the poems experimentally with heavily fragmented associative movements. However, in many places, this risk pays off large rewards, as the form mirrors the broken pieces of the relationship and the disjointed thought process of the speaker after trauma. In “Into the Margin,” she writes:
I’ll ride the blue.
Prostituting the fact that people can turn.
You turned. (Not I)
Every day, you shifted.
You shifted in. You shifted into
into the margin.
Here, the poem moves somewhat associatively, and the form is breaks and scatters across the page, but the meaning is not abstract; the grief is clear, as is the wisdom gained from the experience.
In addition to her experimental form, Umansky also excels at a rare sort of language play and music. In fact, in many of the poems, a common theme surfaces: language exists as consistently bound to the self. The poems repeatedly reference the self in terms of punctuation, margins, and definitions. And often the poems move solely through sound association. For example, in “The Roaring:”
I will require no bracketing
Stretch me long;
Elonged or aligned;
fill the page, my word will be folly.
Another fine example of this tactic also comes from “Into the Margin:”
To the forefront. To the forgettted.
The forgotten. The forgetful.
I’ll never forget the unbecoming.
The way us became you.
I took us out of my lexicon.
When Umansky succeeds at this musical association, each line carries new implications: they stack one burden on top of another burden, so that each sound carries heavier emotional weight. Also, the continual link of the self to language suggests that the process of writing and speaking about the failed marriage helps to salvage the self. In fact, the speaker seems desperate to do so:
I will keep defining.
I mean, I, will keep defining.
I mean, I, will keep.
I will keep.
The repetition here is layered with accusation and uncertainty, but it’s clear that the speaker has no choice: she must find a way out of the destruction, and that way out comes through language.
The only weaknesses in these poems result from theoretical musings that feel intangible or abstract. Additionally, Umansky makes the same moves in several poems, and the repetition, while clearly outlining an obsession, can get tiresome or appear like a gimmick after a few too many uses. For example, Umansky often uses blanks in her poems, such as in “Self::History:”
I am done being_____________.
When I first read the blanks, I enjoyed them; I considered them as literal blanks. For example, in the examples above, I read the lines as “I am done being nothing, done being empty.” Umansky uses this tactic so many times, though, that it begins to lose its luster.
However, this book still offers plenty to admire, both in its construction and its message. By the end of the collection, the most pleasurable aspects of the speaker shine from her wit and rebelliousness. The book suggests that a woman of this sort will always pull through, and her self will evolve through transcendence. Umansky offers an important message in our history of feminist writing as she interrogates a woman’s constant grappling between the self and the pressure of a successful romantic union. In “The Thick of the Real World,”Umansky dazzles and tickles with her razor tongued wit:
So many stories about women in houses; women out of houses; women in and out of love, we should open a shop and fill it with Kleenex and booze.
It’s not a mystery being female. We are all uncloistered now: free. Use us sparingly before we become less-honest; indecent; less-sacrificial. In the thick of it all, there will always be a longstanding attraction here in our shape and form. There is so much youthful enthusiasm in every woman’s pinky. Watch me call you over.
The daring, the defining, the defiance, the drollness, undoubtably, Umansky has something vital to say about women and the domestic sphere, and that’s this collection’s greatest attribute.
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in Pank Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Poetry Quarterly, Cider Press Review, The Aurorean, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee, and a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop participant. She holds degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. She currently teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, Wheelock College, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, MA. She also serves as a poetry reader for Ploughshares. Find her online at http://anne-champion.com