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.
Along these lines, Umansky's appropriation of received forms of discourse for novel purposes proves to be innovative and engaging as the book unfolds. By presenting the reader with mislaid dictionary definitions, multiple choice questions, and fill in the blanks, Umansky calls upon the reader to assume a more active role, allowing them to participate in the process of creating meaning alongside the poet. In many ways, this also constitutes a radical and thought-provoking revision of the nineteenth century tradition that she has inherited. Umansky writes,
Larger than life; epically grand. Just give me the extra mile! If you call it a _________________, it's a __________________. You define what is familiar. Don't the homophones all sound like "you?" Make me: everything.
Here Umansky's innovative use of form leaves space for the reader's imagination, allowing them to situate their own experience within the narrative that's being presented. I find it fascinating that Umansky has revised not only the nineteenth century novels she references, but the relationship between artist and audience that these texts embodied. Here the reader appears as collaborator, an idea that not only destabilizes meaning within the text, but affords a wide range of possible interpretations, each one as rich as the last.
Purchase Leah Umansky's Domestic Uncertainties here.