My Soviet Union
by Michael Dumanis
University of Massachusetts Press, $14.95 (paper)
Whistling through the graveyard of atrocities large and small, Michael Dumanis’s Juniper Prize-winning first book My Soviet Union leaps deftly among its personae, dictions, and poetic styles, always testing the capacity of its linguistic inventiveness to contend with the facts of capital-H History. The poet’s formal dexterity and imaginative scope are not only impressive but dizzying, even delightful—or strangely delightful, given that “The War / The Authorities Ban Us From Covering” permeates the background like cosmic radiation, and failures of intimacy (“I would conduct / reenactments // of meeting her / in my spare time”) dominate the fore. Dumanis, who was born in the USSR, presents a world haunted by the specter of totalitarianism, one that encompasses not only the cold war history of Baku, Azerbaijan and the events of contemporary Gaza, but also the mundaneness of Elkhart, Indiana, which, we are assured, is not “the Banishment / Capital of the World,” but “the Band Instrument / Capital of the World.” In this world the performative capacity of the dramatic monologue seems less a stylistic choice than a coping mechanism, and Dumanis distinguishes himself as a monologist in the lineages of both Plath and Ashbery. The personae the poet inhabits are, like the speaker of “Professional Extra,” often bit-part actors, faces in the crowd nevertheless constantly shoring fragments against their ruin. “(T)ime will decide if history will have me,” the extra says. “The heart is a construct I cobble together // from outtake to outtake.” In following the poet’s metamorphoses from persona to persona, from New York School playfulness to sober elegy to Steinian textual recombination, we may keep the counsel of “Travel Advisory” in mind: “Do not confuse / yourself with your reflection, / this span of ruins with a system, / this inn with a place to come back to.” The advice seems a matter of survival, and one takes it at its word.