Don Dreams and I Dream by Leah Umansky

-Reviewed by Keiran Goddard


First things first … Leah Umansky’s Mad Men inspired pamphlet, Don Dreams and I Dream, is really quite good.

In order to explain why I think this, I’m going to have to talk about Mad Men for a bit.

Mad Men is an odd beast. At its worst it is basically a soap opera sexed up with a bit of fetishist period detail. It can be a pretty ugly watch – sweaty, boorish drunks talking about washing powder and tinned ham. All the pocket-squares and hold-ups in the world can’t redeem an hour’s worth of lazy sexism and garish product placement.

On the other hand, it can be incredibly powerful. It is a captivating portrayal of America at a time of unrivaled market supremacy; a nation exporting its vision of happiness through consumption while all the time trying to hold back the rising tide of counterculture.

At the centre of it all is Don, intellectually isolated, attempting to live authentically, and mostly failing. His failure is pretty unavoidable, after all, he spends his entire life dealing in artifice – shiny lies about love and hope and sex and tinned ham.

It is the interplay of these two parables, the personal and the national, that accounts for a great deal of both Mad Men’s emotional heft and of Umansky’s poetic achievement.

Umansky knows that we all recognise Don’s plight, dying of thirst but unable to stop poisoning the well:

So, Don dreamt he was an angel. It’s sweet. I’ve dreamt
about Motherhood. [So what?] Now, it feels all downtrodden.
I wish I knew the crested. I wish I knew what made the light
twitch; what brings the light to the moon so I can carry it
inside, and know there is glory in the in-between. That
there is something here to be sought or sought-after.
Something to be stared-down-beautiful.

(‘Don Dreams and I Dream’)

The long, conversational lines are used to good effect. They allow Umansky’s work to maintain confessional immediacy whilst at the same time ensuring there is enough air in which voices can entwine, problematise and complicate.

Umansky continually overlays the simple power of Don’s everyman journey with richer subplots, all cynicism and raised eyebrows. Frequently we hear a polyphony of competing and distorting interrogations: to what extent are our tales of heroism and self-actualisation implicitly gendered? Who gets to be a sad-eyed pilgrim and who gets to be a busty signpost in a flattering dress?

There is significant poetic skill at work throughout this pamphlet, a confident slink between registers and time-frames, between the pithy and the profound:

The purchasing is natural.
People buy things to realize
what they value,
and what they don’t.
Sometimes, people buy things to realize
the value of their aspirations.
Some aspirations are more valuable than others.

(‘Days of Sterling/Days of Yore’)

In lesser hands, this could easily read as sloganeering. Umansky, however, is a powerful writer, so we are made to feel something considerably more complex. From the ad agencies of the 1960s Umansky plucks a vapid justification for hollow consumerism and presents it for what it really is: a blueprint for a spiritually barren future, a future in which a show like Mad Men could exist.

We know by now that the counterculture lost, and that it lost badly. All of the slogans about freedom, dreams and revolutions became a bust-currency. We still hear them occasionally, but only on adverts … usually for computers or smoothies. Umansky’s work is perhaps most succesful when it addresses this, when it leverages the utopian visions of the period against the reader’s awareness of how that particular battle played itself out:

Don me in designer suits. Don me in a new age. Don me in what’s coming. Drape the future round my shoulders. Drape the next life across my lap. Drape me in the madness. Don me in the twoness of passion. Don me in pieces of last, of force; pieces of shaken and possible then drape me in manhood. Drape me in machinery and steel. Don me in utterly and plush utterings and, [Do I sound like I’m stuttering?]

(‘In My Next Life, I Want To Be An Ad Man’)

Umansky is at her best here, wistful and sarcastic and wielding the tools of the jobbing copywriter. The dense punning and repetition, the tri-partite rhetorical flourishes, the tongue-twisting internal rhymes – all tricks of the advertising trade and all utilised with dynamism and wit.

Don Dreams and I Dream, does contain the occasional mis-step. Regardless of the intent, rhymes such as ‘mother/smother’, ‘grain/pain’ (‘Draper and the Jewess’) can’t help but feel a bit jarring. That said, such moments are few and far between and do little to detract from the work as a whole.

At its very best, watching Mad Men is a deeply unusual and humbling experience. It can feel like watching the beginning of a war from the vantage point of the ungrateful victor … enjoying the spoils but with the whiny, nagging feeling that you never truly got to pick sides.

Don Dreams and I Dream, attacks this pressure-point relentlessly, it is an uncomfortable and impressive read. I laughed and felt guilty for laughing, I was sad without being entirely sure who for, and, above all else, I felt horribly implicated in its central conflicts.

Implicated may well seem like an odd term with which to compliment a poetry pamphlet, but much like Mad Men, it is the result of Umansky having the artistic bravery to shoot for big game and the artistic skill to hit the target.

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