Review of The Barbarous Century by Leah Umansky

Leah Umansky’s collection takes the reader on a dystopian journey.

The Barbarous Century by Leah Umansky (2018)

Leah Umansky’s collection The Barbarous Century aims to bring the reader through a journey of challenges, both the kind that all humans face, as well some in various dystopian settings that the collection explores. Many of the poems in this collection, such as “Where Are The Stars?”, take an inward focus, challenging profound ideas of self and soul:

I am a galaxy of one, of one whole, but my whole is centered. It’s a ring of
pity. A ball of fire. I am not a liar. I know what I feel, and I know that there
is so much that I want to be a part of.

In this poem, self and soul are related to a galaxy held deep within each individual, their center of self. An entire star is held within the center of every person. In the final lines of “Where Are The Stars?”, the impact that is left is one of pure death: “The center of the self is a star. / (aren’t all stars dead?)” depicts an ending of self. This is one of the first examples of the occasional dystopias that are embedded within The Barbarous Century. This sense of a dead soul, of a burned out center, perhaps a world where that is the case for all, provides a change of tone that sets up the rest of the collection.

“Sonnet” builds off such ideas, the true exhaustion brought about by day to day life: “All the sobering voices of my despair and all of these, well, these too-felt days.” In such an oppressive reality, what is there to do but look to a better future, to hope better days will arrive soon and look at what good is had? “We marvel at what is good. (Sometimes we need a good stare.) / We hope for love and bask in the harrowed flux of tomorrow: it’s vision, sound and green.”

As the collection progresses, Umansky’s poems bounce back and forth from an inward to an outward focus, converging the broad world outside oneself as well as the expansive outside world. Other poems that focus on the self include “Sestina,” which delves into webs of lies, ones people tell themselves to trick the mind into viewing the world and self as better things: “I can’t remember the last time I thought it best / To stand so completely honest with the world, with myself.” Just as the inner self and understanding matters, so does the outside world and how we perceive it. These even work hand in hand for most things in life; “The Rest,” introduces longing for a connection with others, a desire to become part of something larger than self:

There were howled longings. There were nests still warm to the
touch. I felt they were still warm to the touch.

               I know; I know; I know, I am alone              
and this thing is late and feather-laden. I am still moved, though it
is difficult to say

An aching loneliness reverberates in this poem, similar to many others within this collection. Yet among the overwhelming feeling of loneliness, the speaker is still moved by the emotions and memories that linger. A nostalgic remembrance remains that still moves the heart:

Yes, it is difficult to say what to do; Yes it is
difficult to say what to say; Yes it is difficult.
Yes, it is difficult. I know it is difficult. It is
all so very difficult but many live to know.

Here we see the overarching theme of The Barbarous Century: the idea of difficulty, in all manner of the aspects of life; the speaking, the feeling, the knowing and the learning. All manner of life is full of difficulty, yet no matter how internal all suffering may seem, there are many others living the same pain. And even with the pain, the difficulty, there is not always resentfulness. “The Rest” touches on this idea in its final lines: “Don’t they know? / Don’t they know, I cherish the bristle and the fat?” Throughout The Barbarous Century, the reader grows to learn to revere the difficulty that life presents. The collection ends with a poem entitled “Survival,” following through with encouraging thoughts of a fight through endless adversary:

This is a feared state but we must open the doors of our hearts,
and let the latches fall. All futures are uncertain. A brave new
world is one where doom and sight are equivocal. Look again,
This isn’t fiction; we are living this.

With “Survival,” the collection is brought to a close of hope and readiness for what the future may bring. Though uncertain, there can be something beautiful found in both euphoria and sorrow: “Yes, I said art, and it is, even in this pacing / of life we propel ourselves through.” Though a confessional collection of poetry, Umansky leaves readers with more than simply the flaws of humanity. Instead, these poems offer a way for us to survive and thrive through such troubles.

Assistant poetry editor Ky Dubeau is currently enrolled at Lake Superior State University with a major in Creative Writing. Dubeau currently resides in Sault Sainte Marie, MI.