Leah Umansky is one of those New York writers that everyone knows, and for good reason. She hosts a reading series called COUPLET, she reads often at other writers’ series and–most of all–she actually attends other peoples’ readings. I feel terrible about how little I show up at literary events (or any events) that don’t directly involve me or a good friend; I used to be so much better but now I suck. Leah does not! After a reading at Poets House hosted by the literary journal I co-edit, she waltzed up, introduced herself, wrote up the event on BOMBlog and has since become a contributor to the journal, with a poem about silicone breasts on the run in Coney Island that we are all obsessed with (read it here). She is an advocate of writers both contemporary and classic. Her love of the Brontes is so well-documented that I had to send her a Facebook message when I finally got around to reading Wuthering Heights a few months ago (I did not tell her, though, that I didn’t like it…). This is all to say that when she announced that her first book of poetry Domestic Uncertainties was going to be published, half of the writers in New York probably were thinking that it couldn’t happen to a better person. (To that end, check out this really neat comic-strip review of the book from The Rumpus.)
The book, predictably, is fantastic. It is often referred to as being about a divorce, although what seems more accurate is that it is about a woman dealing with a divorce–the person rather than the situation is at the center of the book. Poems appropriate lines from Virginia Woolf, Proust, Anais Nin and more without ever veering into pretension or obscurity. In the poem “Trans Relation,” she references the Get, a folded Jewish divorce document, explaining in the book’s notes what it is. The context adds to the meaning, but reading the poem without knowing, as I did the first time, doesn’t make it any less powerful: When I said, I love you, folded in that love, in a small, / parchmented tuft, was my ability to unlove. Like my ability / to unclean this for you, uncover this for you, unlight this for / you. Read the smoke signs. Decipher soot.
The passage above shows Leah’s ability with repetition and with directives. The last lines there–the last lines of the poem–remind me of a poem by Margaret Atwood I used to be obsessed with, “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing”: This is a torch song / Touch me and you’ll burn. While the speaker of “The Art of Unloving” is not the daughter of a god turned exotic dancer like Atwood’s, both twist mythology or religion for their own purposes, ignite them at the end and order the man or men they’re speaking to deal with the fall-out.
Here is another example of a poem ending with a command, from “Story”: It was all appositives. / You never loved. / Say it for me. / Say it. What I really love here is how each line ends with a period. If there were commas instead, or no punctuation at all, one might imagine the speaker pleading, melting down. But, instead, each line is strong and the reader is forced to pause after each one. For me, I imagined the person being spoken to standing speechless after each period, the speaker not giving up.
Readers of this blog will know that I’ve never written about a book of poetry before. It’s not that I don’t read poetry on a regular basis, but when I do, it is usually in journals; I am a casual rather than committed consumer of poetry. I’ll say though, that even if you are like me, this book is worth a purchase. Support a great writer, get a great book–win/win.