First Book Review: Leah Umansky's Domestic Uncertainties
In Leah Umansky's beautifully written and poignant first book, Domestic Uncertainties, readers will find failed courtships, nineteenth century novels left in ruins, and the "nomenclature for what is left." Presented as an extended sequence of hybrid genre vignettes, which use elements of poetry, flash fiction, and lyric essay, Umansky's finely crafted collection presents a provocative matching of form and content. Frequently invoking Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and other nineteenth century fictions by women, Umansky gracefully situates these female writers within the context of twenty-first century post-genre writing, a thought-provoking gesture that proves at turns reverent and destructive.
I find it fascinating that these hybrid genre pieces simultaneously inhabit and revise literary tradition. The work of nineteenth century women writers is no longer forced into male forms of discourse, but rather, Umanksy forges new possibilities for representing and depicting women's lived experience. For instance, Emily Bronte's famed characters, Catherine and Heathcliff, appear in fragmented, elliptical, and thoroughly postmodern prose. These stylistic choices suggest that as Adrienne Rich once argued, women should not write in literary forms that are hostile to them, but rather, should seek out new possibilities for representing their experiences. Consider "What Literature Teaches Us About Love,"
And after death there is no heart. And after death there is no unknowing for what could've been there is only what is. And there is only what has. And Love. Always Love.
I'm intrigued by Umansky's treatment of the poem as a space in which intervention into literary tradition becomes possible. Just as she re-imagines Wuthering Heights from a fragmented, postmodern stylistic standpoint, Umansky presents each poem as a theoretical act, an active engagement with the work that came before her own. Domestic Uncertainties is filled with poems like this one, which read as both conversation with and revision of received wisdom.
Flux, the new collection of poems by Japan-based poet Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, reveals a myriad of fluctuations and transitions in style and theme. From the poet’s diverse choice of form to her penetrating eye on the collection’s wide range of subject matter, the poems here reveal the constant change in the stream of time. Particularly effective are Joritz-Nakagawa’s prose poems. These stream-of-conscience social commentaries condense one women’s lifetime of sexual experiences to their very essence, with Joritz-Nakagawa constantly crossing the boundary between prose and poetry. Her poems reference modern racial tensions and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, while quoting the disparate words of the singer Morrissey and Albert Einstein, in a shifting perspective of form and fancy.
by Kristina Marie Darling
Kristina Marie Darling sets the imagination ablaze in her newest work Vow. With a chorus of dark melodies, words come as beautiful colors, gripping scenes happen in mere words, and the haunting promise of the vow becomes exposed. This absorbing collection creeps down the corridors of the mind, illuminating the spaces that a broken vow leaves behind.
“So we bury our vows one by one. We are pieces of an altar collapsing from the inside.”Writing in a coolly detached rhythm, Darling’s understated voice takes hold of each moment, “I dream another me exists in the burning house, reading aloud from what I have written.”
A collection that sits a little more on the unconventional side, what’s especially enjoyable is the meaningfully placed white space and text placement. The non-traditional format supports the creative power of the book and even inspires thought on the concept of the imagination as a whole. Consider that the expectations we have for something—someone—are rooted deeply in our imagination. Darling meditates on just that, using media as metaphor for the way our minds idealize such a commitment:
I had always imagined the day would look like: velvet backdrop onto which the landscape is projected like a sad film. Somewhere in that picture, a declaration.
Geoffrey Gatza is an award-winning poet and editor. He is the author many books of poetry, including Secrets of my Prison House (BlazeVOX 2010), Kenmore: Poem Unlimited (Casa Menendez 2009), and HouseCat Kung Fu: Strange Poems for Wild Children (Meritage Press 2008). He is also the author of the yearly Thanksgiving Menu-Poem Series, a book-length poetic tribute for prominent poets, now in it's tenth year. His visual art poems have been displayed in the gallery showing Occupy the Walls: A Poster Show, AC Gallery (NYC) 2011 occupy wall street N15 For Ernst Jandl - Minimal Poems with photography from the fall of Liberty Square; and in Language to Cover a Wall: Visual Poetry through its changing media, UB Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY) 2011/12 Language for the Birds. Geoffrey Gatza is the editor and publisher of the small press BlazeVOX. The fundamental mission of BlazeVOX is to disseminate poetry, through print and digital media, both within academic spheres and to society at large. He lives in Kenmore, NY with his girlfriend and two beloved cats.
Loren Kleinman (LK): Why write Apollo? Talk about its premise? What's the goal of the book? What are the main conversations?
Geoffrey Gatza (GG): I was drawn to write Apollo after falling in love with chess. While studying the game, I realized Marcel Duchamp, arguably one of the 20th century's most important and influential artists, was an intriguing figure in the chess world. Apollo traces the central strategies and themes of Duchamp's work. Movement, displacement, doubling, isolation, pun, and metamorphosis are the tactics used by Duchamp to estrange the ordinary. More than just a collection of poems, this book is a readymade, taking the form of a souvenir ballet program detailing a one-night-only performance of Apollo by Igor Stravinsky to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Armory Show in New York, in which Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 caused a sensation during its exhibition. At its heart, this book is about Marcel Duchamp but it is also about chess. It was thought for a long while that Marcel Duchamp gave up art to play professional chess. However, this was found to be not true with the revelation of his last major artwork, Étant donnés.
Using the form of a ballet, this work calls attention to the acts of performance, movement and choreography as well as the rhythms and balance of dance. These ideas are also found in chess. The conversation between dance and chess runs through this work. Each character is represented by a chess piece and their movements are conveyed and correlated as dance, thus the reason this book takes the form of a ballet. Marcel Duchamp, his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, Dorothea Tanning, Leornona Carrington, and Gertrude Abercrombie perform the ballet. Max Ernst leads the orchestra and Dizzy Gillespie performs a special solo.
The ten sequences in Apollo are performed in poem sections unfolding with specific functions towards the production and appreciation of the creative act. Duchamp famously said, "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act." This book establishes a more active role for the reader, who is asked to participate in creating meaning from the text. The work becomes collaboration between the audience, the poet, and the tradition that they've all inherited. The diversity of these works echoes the complexities of the subject, but together they posit something specific, the heightened relationship between the interior self and the exterior world.
LK: Is Apollo a conceptual poetry collection?
GG: Indeed, this is a conceptual collection; conceptual with a lower case 'c.' I say this to distinguish this book from some of the Conceptual poetry being written by Kenny Goldsmith, Vanessa Place and Divya Victor.
The whole book is an art object, taking the form of a souvenir program of a ballet performance that never took place. In the proper spirit of the performance, I sent out invitations to the ballet, giving an address and performance space that did not exist. The text of the book needed to move beyond the ordinary form of poetry, so a Stravinsky ballet was chosen to act as the template/stage for the work to happen.
Opening with an introduction narrated by Duchamp's female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy sets the stage for the evening's performance and as hostess for the evening, tells the story of Tiresias. The first tableau details the birth of Apollo and how Apollo created the game of chess for Caissa in an Ovidian style of mythic writing. This is followed in turn by the myth of how Duchamp gave up painting for other forms of more engaging art.
A dada chess poem and a photo ballet of a chess game are used to illustrate the moving perceptions of chess. Highlighting Duchamp's work, forms a relationship with it, and gives relative weight to the subject.
Three long poems look at the work of three prominent female surrealist painters. Dorothea Tanning's painting, Birthday, is contemplated in "The Twelve Hour Transformation of Clare," a story of a woman who disappears into words. Leonora Carrington's work is thought through in "Recipe for Water," a poem of time and contemplation of relationships within a mystical space. The Ivory Tower by Gertrude Abercrombie is enacted in a retelling of the Lady of Shallot.
Duchamp Draws Rrose Sélavy is a three-act play that sets up an imaginary scene between Marcel Duchamp and his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy. They play a game of chess in the final moments before Duchamp completes his last major piece, Étant donnés. At the end of the play, the audience is trapped in the tableau of Étant donnés, left in a museum. To complete the book, the ballet takes the form of a complaint letter to the director of the Albright Knox. Detailing the true story of how I was kicked out of the museum for carrying an umbrella, the ballet ends on the outside steps with the author anticipating the redundancy of death.