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Winter 2009 - BOOK REVIEW by Kristina Marie Darling
"My Soviet Union"
Poetry by Michael Dumanis
Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press
ISBN: 978-1-55849-585-2

In his first collection of poems, My Soviet Union, Michael Dumanis treats exile, loss, and redemption through parody, a combination that proves striking. Filled with puns, fables, and children's songs, the book begins by establishing discontinuities between form and content, using comedy to illuminate the tragic. As he does so, Dumanis offers an astute commentary on life in the former U.S.S.R., as well as trends emergent in modern political existence. Suggesting that recent history has created complex individual identities, Dumanis uses artifice to explore ways citizens negotiate competing loyalties to nations and ideologies, frequently pairing suffering alongside stylization and restraint.

Dumanis's use of these recurring themes in structuring his book is particularly impressive. Presented as a four-part meditation on the ways one's country shapes one's identity, each section of My Soviet Union depicts this idea from a different point of view, using puns and unexpected associations to carry the reader from one thematic approach to the next. In the first part of the book, Dumanis introduces the connection between individual fates and collective ideals, using the next three sections explore loss on a personal level, the discovery of hope, and the possibility of individual happiness amidst communal turmoil. Suggesting that citizens may find resolution in their own lives as the global landscape grows increasingly convoluted, Dumanis jokes and farces, revealing political life as "The final Yum Yum Shoppe" that "has closed its doors." He writes in his poem "Today, on the Obituary Channel," for example:

    Suddenly during a terminal illness
    A suicide following open heart surgery
    On the family farm in the clutch of a mistress
    By lethal injection while singing
    The Battle Hymn of the Republic missing
    And still presumed to have invented solitaire

Often using poetic forms to mirror the artifice with which one must present these conflicts of ideology and identity to the world, his use of form proves at once surprising and fitting.
In this passage, Dumanis suggests that while individuals may find solace after loss, larger social movements still continue to shape their lives, establishing a conflict that remains central to the book. Because the man "On the family farm in the clutch of a mistress" still sings "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Dumanis suggests that one cannot isolate from one's heritage, an idea that remains as absurd as claiming to have "invented solitaire." As he conveys the inconsistencies of his speaker's identity, Dumanis transitions from their intensification to their resolution on a personal note later in the book, all while maintaining a sense of stylistic unity throughout the collection.

While he navigates these complementary themes, Dumanis's varied uses of couplets and tercets in My Soviet Union are also striking. Often using poetic forms to mirror the artifice with which one must present these conflicts of ideology and identity to the world, his use of form proves at once surprising and fitting. These ideas are exemplified by his poem "Memoir," in which Dumanis presents his expatriation alongside American consumer culture, using three-line stanzas to create throught-provoking juxtapositions and incongruities. He writes, for example:

    …there comes this panic,
    I catch myself clutching
    a wrench at Wal-Mart,

    a wren in a field,
    clutching a wrist
    near a radio tower,

    or someone's key
    I had not been aware of,
    turning the knob

    of a make-believe door.

"Ode," like many of the poems in this collection, uses unexpected templates to create works that prove at once contradictory and multifaceted, a combination that proves striking throughout the book.
Through his pairing of formal writing and the narrator's sense of panic, Dumanis suggests such emotional turmoil shows through the artifice with which he tries to conceal it. Mirrored by the narrator's clinging to "a wrench at Wal-Mart" and a "wrist/near a radio tower," Dumanis depicts his speaker seeking solace from internal pain in public spaces, a pairing that suggests the speaker cannot restrain his suffering to the interior. Often using breaks in the form of the poem to convey these intersections of public existence and concealed distress, My Soviet Union skillfully negotiates technique and content, dazzling the reader with compelling narratives all the while.

Also notable are Dumanis's revisionist treatments of fables, songs, and children's stories. Imbuing such lighthearted material with darker undercurrents, the templates that Dumanis chooses continue to create discontinuities between form and subject matter. These ideas are particularly prominent in his poem "Ode," in which he transitions from childhood crushes to politics, often using unexpected logical leaps and novel associations. He writes, for instance:

    Dolores, I love you, the pain in your name,
    dear Mindy, because you seem pie-faced and sweet, make me tea,
    let me molest the rose mole in the cleft of your chin,
    and let me molest, on your back, every sinkhole, each nodule,
    I'll reconceive all these as what, reaffirmations,
    and I am in love yes I am with my childhood's squat flat,
    and with the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which I chose not to read,
    but could not put down on account of its red leather binding.

Using the children's song to discuss diversions from social issues, Dumanis chooses a template that complements and further complicates his subject. As the poem progresses, the speaker transitions to a description of his country as being "so thin and worn that we/ can see each other through it," a metaphor that implies that, just as Mindy and Dolores remain temporary distractions from emotional and political turmoil, the speaker's inner conflicts remain visible through the disguise of the children's song. "Ode," like many of the poems in this collection, uses unexpected templates to create works that prove at once contradictory and multifaceted, a combination that proves striking throughout the book.

These techniques make for a stunning use of the poem sequence, in which individual poems often illuminate one another through both form and parody. In his poem, "The Woods Are Burning," for example, Dumanis presents violence alongside farce and riddles, examining the idea of war from different points of view—ranging from that of Willy Loman to a professor, students, and an actual witness—in each of the five sections in the poem. He writes in one of them:

    I don't remember things the way I used to.

    Words disappear: I asked one of my students what apartheid was.

    All of them knew,
    except the ones who were black.

    None of my students were black.

Pairing this poem with the voice of an actual observer of these events, Dumanis juxtaposes the words of the privileged with those of the oppressed, suggesting the two remain irreconcilable. Often using couplets, tercets, and his characteristic quick wit, Dumanis reveals this disparity as farcical in itself, implying that globalization continues to complicate loyalties to nations and ideologies. Like other poems in My Soviet Union, "The Woods Are Burning" presents both the formal alongside the fervent, gracefully navigating a complex subject.

My Soviet Union is an intelligent, enigmatic read. Ideal for those who enjoy finely crafted poetry as well as political writing, readers will be missing out if they don't add Dumanis's new book to their library.


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