Straight Away the Emptied World by Leah Umansky

Reviewed by Becky Varley–Winter

Straight Away the Emptied World is ostensibly a dystopian-themed chapbook, but as Leah Umansky tells us, ‘The First Rule of a Dystopia is not to Know You’re in a Dystopia’. You might be expecting post-apocalyptic hollowed-out wastes, but these poems are lively. The first introduces a debonair voice which combatively solicits my attention: “[Note: I am not the arch-villain of this poem. You are.]”. The speaker gives instructions to the reader, such as “Push this in, then pull”, or “She is there in the afterglow. See her.” Instructions in poems tend to make me stubborn and truculent, but there are escape hatches offered as well as commands, like a riddling sphinx in a fairy tale, giving a “side way out.” Leah Umansky writes “[choose your own adventure]”, as if it is up to the reader to decide which way to go, what these poems are. ‘The Lost Engine’ begins “Is this unsettling? Fleeing is not the answer, or the point I’m after”, as if shining a bright light in the reader’s eyes.

Aside from these more interrogative gestures, Leah Umansky has a knack for surprise and wonder, repeatedly returning to the night sky: “Once upon a time is the sound of a star gesturing, / The retelling of our origin, hidden in the spark of gravel.” This ‘spark of gravel’ doubles in meaning: it could be both the earth as a distant point in space, and a star, an inventive twist on We are all stardust.

Other lines are appealing for their sound, aside from what they might be ‘saying’ – “She will rollick with the tinkers” – or for their inventive juxtapositions, “their penny-jar full of grace”. ‘Once’ has real delicacy in presenting its subject:

There was a harboring of safetys that buoyed in the sea-
chant and then, I too, was rattling in the green. My feet were nested
in salt and sand. My hands, adrift in lace.

These “hands, adrift in lace” suggest both webs of foam in the sea and soaked frilly sleeves. Lines like “Once, I felt I was a slice of heart” present slices of being, tracks of thought like phosphorescence in the sea: “Once, there was the falling of night and I was alone with its / steepness, and I said, stirring because I felt I was a pooling of light.”

I’m struck not just by beauty or originality of articulation, but originality of thought: in ‘Forgotten Century’, for example, “I like my blues muscular. / I like my breath / To be as wide as a wooden spoon.” Is that a wooden spoon lengthways, or widthways? Poems play nonsensically with the fabric of words-as-images, setting an object up only to knock it down: “This is not a warrior’s helmet. This is a scarf, really.”

The tone is, in general, cautiously optimistic. ‘This is a Real Elegy’ is a “tender song”, aching and bruised, but “there is wonder inside each of us darkly-pitted things.” Darkly-pitted suggests both the stones of fruit, and battling armies pitted against each other, prescribing: “First, fight. / Second, love. / Third, love harder.” ‘The Decline’ traces the intoxication with the visual world which persists in times of death: “First, we are visual creatures. [Let’s not be daft.]” Occasionally, bracketed lines set up a skeptical response to the seemingly-dominant voice of the poem:

The centre of the self is a star.


(Aren’t all stars dead?)

All stars aren’t dead, so either these voices are playing with language in space – with imaginary facts or parodies of fact – or this is a dystopian universe in which the basis for knowledge has collapsed. “[What if this is all just a backdrop?]” the bracketed voice wonders. In ‘Once’ (2), various fantastic constructions of the past are offered:

It is difficult to describe, but,
once the day was a blade of caped-wonder that clung to the hidden-
stars as fog to the green.

Once, even the steeled-beauty of truth was
a cold weapon of life we all wielded.

Once, you knew, and didn’t have to ask
more than once.

In this speculative knowledge-vacuum, myths and fantasies are constructed, reminiscent of David Bowie song lyrics: “My meteor and I ride the galaxies. / It isn’t until my Crater-Queen calls that I have to return.” This dystopia feels more like a theme park (Welcome to THE EMPTIED WORLD: RIDES, RIDES, RIDES!!!) but if these poems are fanciful, they are boldly so, creating webs of complex likenings:

But our gravitational pull is a hand trapped in tar
that ensnares the love of the world in a dark taut tinkering

Gravity as “a hand trapped in tar” is vivid, sticky and viscous: mortality as a tar-field. In ‘The Love Orphans’, Umansky writes “I haven’t found the cosmic. This is a scrofulous mess:” and some of these poems seem to dramatise the creative urge itself, the act of writing, with a feeling of ridiculous ambition caught in itself: “I want to pull a planet into my / swing, maybe a moon.” I want to say, no explanation needed. There’s lots of fun at Straight Away, the Emptied World. Choose your own adventure.