A Review of Leah Umansky’s Don Dreams and I Dream
by Sarah Marcus
As a binge watcher of the television show Mad Men and as a feminist reading through a feminist lens, I was interested to discover the manner in which Leah Umansky would address the main character of this AMC drama, Don Draper, a mysterious and not so mysterious cheating-hero. Umansky accomplishes the difficult task of both honoring this fictional man and exposing his distorted idealism and chauvinism in her compelling work, Don Dreams and I Dream. To begin with the end, in her final poem, “The Times,” Umansky admits, “I thought I’d hate Don, like everyone else, but I don’t. I long/ for him the way kids long for the turning of the Ice Cream Man.” Umansky’s pining for Don is matched by her insight and mastery of language as she navigates the boundaries between a public and private sense of past and present and of intimacy and distance.
While these poems absolutely can and do stand alone without knowledge of the show, the experience of this chapbook of 15 poems is much enhanced by understanding the intricacies of each character and relationship. As I entered the world of poet-advertising, I was most struck by how, at first glance, these poems seem to be concerned with the past but are in fact very much about the future. These poems not only look forward, they often exist in a landscape of fearing things to come. In the TV show and in our current lives, there is an ever-present anxiety that what we do will eventually be considered irrelevant, and that we are, perhaps, living too much in this moment. Much of this work touches the very core of our search for worldly permanence.
Love, although not necessarily romantic, is a strong narrative thread tying together each poem in this collection. In these pages, the reader finds love of work, love of self, love as “an advertisement,” and love as “sold and bought.” While considering the many ways in which love is made visible or tangible, Umansky makes sure to remind the reader that they are not in charge here. For example, in the very first poem, “Simple Enough For a Woman,” as if the title was not enough of an affront, the reader is uncomfortably directed to “be happy.” Here, we are also enabled to consider the notion of value. These poems give life to the decision of who and what is valuable and asks us to determine how value is measured. The model of worth and of knowing what we are worth, and to whom, is the cornerstone, the key, to entering this world of consumerism.
To be your “own engineer” is the goal, and to be able to accomplish this, as seen in the poem, “Days of Sterling/ Days of Yore,” one must “[live] the dream” like Don. In the poem, “In My Next Life, I Want to Be an Ad Man,” we receive another bold direction: “Make me look good; the world is dangerous.” Appearances are of the highest import and looking good is always preferable to safety.
The world is dangerous, but these poems inhabit a world of what feels like distant danger, as if there is an awareness of impending doom, but there is inherent fun to be had within this instability. The dangers include not only the extravagant lifestyles (of women, booze, and parties), but also the rise of physical and emotional manufacturing: the steel machinery and the coolness of selling an idea. Near the end of this manuscript, there is even a poem titled, “Beauty is in the Machinery,” where Umansky writes, “It is easy to get turned or turned on,” as if chaos is necessary to vulnerability and the threat of losing yourself is not only worth the risk but is sexy and desired, even mandatory.
Generous wordplay and insistent internal rhyme contribute to a feeling that these poems are flirtatious and lighthearted despite their focus on identity and personal significance. The reader is reminded in poems like “It’s the Selling,” that “[we] want to be told” what to think, what to do, and how to feel. We are essentially being asked to buy these poems and these ideas. And again, in the poem “How Advertising Works,” we are told to be bold and confident (forceful, even), to “be a stallion.” One cannot walk away from this chapbook without considering what they are selling and what they are being sold.
These poems reveal a meticulous planning and careful stepping, where everything feels on purpose and orchestrated. Perfectly arranged in the poem, “Creation without Design,” Umansky writes, “I want the color/ to repeat itself/ down your neck;/ So you remember/ that lipstick/ wasn’t made for you,/ but for me;/ So that I can remember/ what a man does/ to his woman.” A stunning image, but moreover a statement that a system is already set-up and composed. Something already existed and was done for you and in spite of you.
The manuscript’s final line, “It’s a man’s world, but not for all of us,” references the act of a young woman, one of Don’s protégées, rising in the advertising ranks and accepting a job with a competitor company. She is leaving the nest, so to speak. For her, and for a moment in our solidarity with her (we can taste the us), the world feels wide open and possible—but, it is a man’s world, and Don Draper is the man, and Umansky, like the show’s writers, never lets us forget that we are very much at his patriarchal mercy. This last line of Don Dreams and I Dream reasserts ownership of our delusion in thinking that things could, in fact, ever be different from how they have been. We are dared to want this, but as Leah Umansky cautions us in “Don Discovered America,” “wanting and having/ are two different things.”
Leah Umansky, Don Dreams and I Dream. Kattywompus Press, 2014: $12
Sarah Marcus is the author of BACKCOUNTRY (2013, Finishing Line Press) and Every Bird, To You (2013, Crisis Chronicles Press). She is also a Count Coordinator for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and an editor of Gazing Grain Press. Read more at sarahannmarcus.com.