Review of Darren Demaree’s ‘Not for Art nor Prayer’

Not for Art nor Prayer by Darren Demaree
8th House Publishing ISBN: 976-1-926716-35-0

What appeals to me about Not for Art nor Prayer is not only Darren Demaree’s poetic craftsmanship in areas of syntax, form, layout and style, but the feeling he has for language with its endless possibilities for richness and subtlety. On the one hand are poems where words are precise and everyday with a contemporary touch such as ‘your short, bent/body, always, in labor/com-/pressed, never beat-/en’ (Adoration #28). On the other hand – and this is what, in my opinion, marks Darren Demaree out as a top quality poet, we have language that is heightened and transformative. ‘I wish outlandish joy for you’, says the narrator in Adoration#6 to the couple in a parking lot and it is this unexpected use of ‘outlandish’ that I find remarkable, together with words like ‘astounding’, ‘ecstatic’, ‘glory’ and ‘magnificence’ that are sprinkled like gems throughout the collection, plus, of course, the ‘Prayer’ in the title and a whole section of poems called ‘Adoration’.

Imagery in many of the poems is vivid and unexpected. I am particularly taken with Adoration #110, dedicated to the author’ son, ( apparently suffering the pains of teething ), where the growing teeth are compared to ‘gravel/between/two ponds’. There is humour too, subtle and laconic, as in Adoration #174 , written ‘for the librarian in the cat socks at Whetstone’ where feelings ‘ of sick or dark/tidings’ are relieved by the sight of ‘Bright blue feline tails/wrapping up legs’. This dark side of existence with its ‘ brutal intervention/ of coming winter’ (The Narrow Cut) is an undercurrent in the collection but the main feeling in all the poems is that of tenderness and compassion. ‘The first time you mentioned your breasts/to me it was to tell me they/were gone now, that there were other/parts missing as well, taken from/your body, from waking flesh’ says the author in Adoration #30, a poem written his neighbour whose name, Anna, is included as a gentle, personal touch – a feature of many of the dedications.

Not for Art nor Prayer is divided into four sections. Poems in Adoration and in Wednesday Mornings are short, epigrammatic, concerned with everyday subjects and ordinary people making them real, bringing out the beauty and value of the commonplace.

The second section All of Them Whole is possibly my favourite. It begins with We Did our Best to Breathe Life into it, a powerful and shocking poem about an injured and dying sheep that the narrator and his wife try to rescue. Here there is pain, blood, raw flesh and vivid lines about breathing into sheep’s mouth in a futile kiss of life. ‘We needed to save something then, needed/to put our mouths on something desperate,/fighting to survive’ says Demaree. This is a poem that feels very real to me; a shared experience between both reader and poet.

In All of Them Whole we have many examples of Demaree’s skill with titles. These are just some, all of them striking: Water Always Leaves the Knife, Without Lamentations, The Ice will Keep our Tide at the Ready, The Younger Poet asks Questions of Ohio, The Tension between the Concrete and the Ethereal.

And then we have the last section, Emily as a Mango hitting the Ground where Darren Demaree weaves the personal and the metaphorical together in a series of beautiful poems with equally fine titles. One of my favourites is Emily by Choice this Time where the elderly cat starts digging up the roots of ‘the sweetgum/that grew without being planted/behind our cinder-block garage’. A philosophical, exploratory poem where, at the end, the cat is not the only one that ‘wandered away without answers’.

I’ll finish my review of this exceptional collection with lines from one of the most lyrical of the Emily poems, Emily as the Cicada’s Song Crests, a poem about memory and time where the narrator asks:

‘will I be able to remember
the lovely things Emily said to me,
when we had to be louder than
a million magic bugs, singing their
only song, without waver?’

Mandy Pannett