An Ambiguous Utopia: Review of Leah Umansky’s “The Barbarous Century”

The advent of movements like Me Too, Black Lives Matter, the Never Again student efforts against gun violence, and others speak to inevitable and necessary backlashes against misogyny, inequality, corruption, and violence. These movements are reminders of the widening cracks between what’s long been tolerated (and in many cases accepted) and the reality of what those who lack societal power have long endured. These chasms between authority and humanity are the subject of Leah Umansky’s beautiful new book of poetry The Barbarous Century. The author starts this collection with self-reflection, then widens her lens through the use of various poetic forms and formats to examine the larger culture and connections between today and yesterday. In this book, dystopias are everywhere: in history, in culture, in relationships, in ourselves. Umansky fleshes them out in ways deeply personal and richly relatable, pushing us to view ourselves through a two-way mirror of apocalypse in which we are both the causalities and the conspirators.

Umansky’s collection is divided into three sections that address the various dystopias in which we find ourselves, and the causes and complications of these worlds. In the first section, “the lost just within reach,” the author “Dream[s] Up a Less Vulnerable Network//with wolves, scales, and endnotes,” telling us “[Note: I am a not the arch-villain of this poem. You are.]” External forces are largely responsible for internal struggles, and the promise of what is helpful or good at times does not arrive. These private battles spill out into the world and contribute to the problems we all witness, creating a vicious cycle of pain we desperately need to expunge.

In “people want their legends,” the second section of Umansky’s book, the author turns to the places we look for comfort in the face of these difficulties. Other people’s problems become attractive because they distract us from our own, as do television shows that transport us into the problems of elsewhere. The author leads with a question and quandary that all of us have asked of ourselves at one point or another: “I don’t remember falling second to myself,/neglecting the long table of my heart.//How did I do this to myself?/I have become secondary.” She longs for what a female character in Game of Thrones has, namely that “Fear in not being a woman.” Khaleesi declares, “I am no ordinary woman, she says,/my dreams come true.” Alongside this fantastical world, Umansky conjures the bold palate and dulcet tones of the 50s and 60s, the family ideal replete with its masculine titular head. Don Draper, the adman of the series, inspires her dreams: “I want to be donned in somehow. Donned in everything./Donned in the forgotten and the ecclesiastics of sex. Drape/me in the charged. Drape me in the raptured.” For even in escape the patriarchy reigns.

But what of the future? And what can the past teach us about changing present and future behavior? Section three, “this is a history of sworn ways,” addresses these questions. It’s an exploration; a questioning; an uncertainty. “I have given it 110% every day. I flout the reckless./Each time I undo the bare, I bury the slights. It is a kind of slaughter,” the author tells us. Umansky works to expose the truth while not allowing it to take her down. This is a precarious balance; it rests on a razor: “We are an empire that hasn’t fallen. We are an empire/that hasn’t fallen yet, but all good things must end,/mustn’t they?” The Barbarous Century portrays “A brave new world [a]s one where doom and sight are equivocal.” An ambiguous dystopia. One we can buy into, and by doing so, hopefully change.

Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (forthcoming from Kelsay Books) and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Amy’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, The Rumpus, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and elsewhere. Her work can be found at


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