Silent Animal of Our Oxygen
As We Refer to Our Bodies by Darren C. DemareeMontreal, Canada: 8th House Publishing, 2013, $14.70. By: Domenica Martinello
An imaginative and surreal space can be created when poetry falls somewhere between ‘rural’ and ‘pastoral’. The two words create notably different atmospheres—‘rural’ reminds me of splinters, for example, while ‘pastoral’ calls to mind fleece. The contested spaces in the poems of Darren C. Demaree’s As We Refer to Our Bodies (2013) straddle complex connotations, both scrubby and idyllic, plain and heightened. The poems shift from meditative, ode-like sequences on the speaker’s interconnected love affair with Ohio and a woman named Emily, towards something darker and more unsettlingly. The mapping of multiple Ohios and Emilys creates a sort of collective consciousness, complete with recursive imagery that pools somewhere in the realm of the rural American gothic.
Taken individually, Demaree’s poems have a polished, pared-down quality to them. A consistent stylistic flourish is the use of the ampersand, adding to the reader’s sense of the poems as sharp, highly contained entities. Yet a heightened effect is achieved when the poems are not treated for their singularity, but for the connectedness achieved through their accumulation. The speaker’s world is a holy trinity of equal and opposing forces: Ohio as the all-permeating landscape, Emily as the beloved who is continually recast in various embodiments, and Belle, the daughter seemingly sprung from the union of the first two. The tension between the three ‘bodies’ lays the foundation for the way the poems collectively cobble together. In the sequence “Ohios”, the speaker feels
Compelled by love to give the whole thing, as whole as a thing can get when
it is neither man nor place, in stasis & static (31)
It is this fertile wholeness that allows the same imagery to replicate almost obsessively. Ohio is at once sentimental and destructive, “a state / shaped like a swollen heart” (22), that can ravage like a “heartquake” (30). Ohio is “raw & rough / & in the dirt, a story peppered / with the word ‘soiled’” (19), and yet later the speaker observes
you can trust the dirt in the garden, because
it has grown things & you could grow
to come back, come back. (34)
Both man and place occupy several spaces at once; the speaker proclaims “Ohio is to be the sea, land-locked” in a sort of stasis, but then describes “the savageness / of our repeated longing [as] lost waves” (27), implying a slow-searching, tide-like movement that is apparent in the rhythms of the sequence as reaches forward and then cycles back on itself.
I was on the land,
then I was under the thinnest ocean,
digging back & back trying to outflank
the processional. (37)
The processional that follows “Ohios”, the one that cannot be outflanked, is the darkly vivid and dynamic core of the collection: the Emily poems. Along with instances of animal imagery, bursts of color, light, and movement are consistently attributed to the various reimaginings of the speaker’s muse. In “Emily As Not Drunk, But Love”, Emily’s “story is always of flight / & drowning”, not of stasis and static. The speaker continues:
…If my chest had been a kiln I would have reconstructed whole parts
of Emily, would have fused her back together, would have her in the shape of a woman…
& the earth, in aid, would be still.
But the earth is teeming with life and cannot be stilled, just as Emily can never been distilled to any single shape. Her fusion is achieved only by observing her multitudinous in a state of constant transformation. In “Emily As Thousands of Colliding Butterflies”, she is “…a lunatic / with wings, a dynamo / in reds, in oranges”, in “Emily As Innumerable Cigarettes” she is a chain-smoker at a dingy party, in “Emily As a Bird” she is a sparrow “[a]mid the bees” in a field “past the last bloom”. It is in the sprawl of Emily that images and metaphors stalk in circles and repeat themselves. There is another sparrow in the poem “The Blind Limits of a Limited Suggestion” singing a song about “one window / quickly closing”.
A sparrow appears again in “Emily As a High Window”, yet now the speaker seems to embody the bird, with a “dedication to the glass / & [a] belief that it doesn’t exist”. The shifted perspective creates a surreal and transcendent atmosphere, similar to the effect of self-referential metaphors. In an earlier poem, “The Wheat Sank Ripe”, a blackbird is described as giving context to a shoulder. Later the speaker recasts both the idea and metaphor in “Emily As Unswerving Realism”: “I know the wheat / is a metaphor, but when / my hand touches your nipple / it feels the breast around it / as well”. Emily’s body provides the speaker with a context for his desire and an outlet for his yearning for the savage loveliness of the rural landscape.
The final sequence in the collection disseminates the “[t]ender field of human fold” (57) that is Belle, the culmination of the speaker’s desire for the intermingling bodies of Emily and Ohio. Sprung from this all-encompassing union, Belle holds “…[her] position / on the map of [the speaker’s] whole world” (57). Here, for the first time, the trappings of a domestic world begin to seep in: poems are populated almost unwittingly by gentleness, rugs, offices, rocking chairs, wood planked floors. The speaker feels a constant tension between wanting to keep Belle away from the dangers of the wild, exterior world, and from encouraging her to
[g]o ahead & go ahead
with that beautiful recklessness of youth.
Tip, break, bleed & then do it again, faster…
Hell is a body with no scars Hell is a daughter that never cried (68).
Though the speaker worries about protecting Belle from the “subliminal kingdoms / of arched backs & throats” (66), a space that he himself has been negotiating, stifling her is an even more frightening alternative. In the collection’s concluding poem “Black & White Picture #173”, the speaker realizes there can be no joy is in living in a world so expansive, textured, raw, and resplendent, without being given free-reign to feel “the full flex of what can be.”
Fitting for a collection that is hyperaware of the natural world and is rife with images of fields, mountains, barnyard animals, woods, birds, and bees, the poems in Darren C. Demaree’s As We Refer to Our Bodies seem to grow and move in unison as an organic body. When taking each rounded stone of a poem and cobbling them together, the work takes on the feel of something alive. The sequences have a heartbeat that quickens and calms, a breath that is at times shallow, at other times deep and even. Whether meandering slow and pastoral, or pacing darkly gothic, Ohio and Emily permeate each poem, omnipresent with “her forgiving, confused skies” (65).
Darren C. Demaree lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children. He is the author of "As We Refer to Our Bodies" and "Not For Art Nor Prayer" from 8th House Publishing House.