A Review of Leah Umansky’s Don Dreams and I Dream

Don Dreams and I Dream

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.


The Pope is Coming! The Pope is Coming!

White smoke emerges from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. indicating that the new pope has been elected. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
White smoke emerges from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013, indicating that the new pope has been elected. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

The Pope is Coming! The Pope is Coming!
By Mark S. Unger

This is CNN, and I’m a talking head on what used to be the nation’s top 24-hour news channel. As you know from watching TV news, reading the paper, listening to radio, Twitter, TMZ, or just about any other media outlet, the Pope announced several weeks ago that he would be resigning. The papal duties proved too much for someone whose job it was to pray all the time. Now he’ll be able to do all those things he couldn’t do as Pope, like pray all the time.

The Vatican told us he was resigning to spend more time with God, and we believed them. After all, it’s not our job to look deeper. Oh wait, it is. Instead, the Italian media uncovered the real reason behind the pontiff’s sudden departure—a brewing scandal involving gay priests, and more cover-up of the ongoing child sexual predator priests. Unlike us, the Pope foresaw the coming avalanche of investigations, arrests, public humiliation, and scrutiny that was about to be heaped upon the highest office of the Catholic Church.

Call it “Papacy Death Storm 2013.” A great headline, but, like most weather-related superstorms, it turned out to be nothing. Nothing for us to cover, that is. Why should we sully the biggest story to hit the Church in nearly six centuries with a bunch of that nasty investigative journalism? Instead, how about a countdown to the new Pope? That sounds like so much more fun. So what if that makes us just as culpable for ignoring the abuse and scandal as the Church itself? The Church may have a reason for trying to cover up the whole ugly mess, but so do we. I think. So let’s not get all caught up in whether or not it’s CNN’s job to report, investigate, dig for information, and expose issues. Let’s run Headlines instead.

Headlines are how this news organization gets respect. “Conclave to choose a new Pope expected to begin in five days,” then four, three , two, one, and finally, “The conclave has begun!” Wow. Heckuva job, Brownie (substitute name of whichever on-scene talking head has been in front of the Vatican for the last five days). Way to go, Scoop!

Not that there weren’t some important facts unearthed during those five days. The Pope will not be wearing his red Prada slippers anymore, but he will be staying in the Vatican. And this just in: Pope Benedict XVI mugs are selling out in the gift shops to make room for the new Pope memorabilia. Nothing like reporting on Kennedy’s assassination by noting Jackie’s outfit, or Paul Revere’s famous ride to warn Americans that the British drink tea. CNN Alert! The ratings are coming! The ratings are coming!

But I digress. Back to more Headlines. “Cardinals take oath of secrecy!” Isn’t that what got them into this mess in the first place?

“Happening now: Doors to Sistine Chapel about to close,” followed shortly by, “Cardinals locked away in Sistine Chapel.” If only we could do this with Congress.

Then there was this, “Breaking News: Black smoke appears at Vatican—Means no new Pope chosen today.” Now that’s how you turn no news into breaking news. But there was more. “No Pope chosen on Day 1 of conclave.” Genius, pure genius.

No headline, however, captured the essence of TV news like the following sequence: “The world waits for new Pope—115 cardinals take oath of secrecy,” followed immediately by “From pro soccer to priesthood—former player gives up the game for seminary.” And no one knows more about giving up the game than CNN.

Ultimately, the smoke changed color, meaning a new Pope had been chosen. We were all over it (the color change). We had no clue who would be chosen. A man of the people, we were told, known more for eschewing the trappings of his predecessors, and for his work with the poor. And a little bit about that thing in Argentina for not standing up for some women who were about to be killed by the Pinochet regime. Yada, yada, yada. Blah, blah, blah. We did our job.

OK, what’s next? Really? OK. Quick! Everyone! To Tel Aviv! The President is coming! The President is coming!