Book Review: Darren Demaree’s “clawing at the grounded moon”
Darren C. Demaree’s recent collection, the extended prose-poem sequence clawing at the grounded moon, opens with a syntactically and metaphorically breathless line that in its wildness gives a taste of what is to come. There is no stopping place in this collection and very little place to stand, no clearly emerging narrative or even sustained emotive arc to orient us. Dizzying, often entirely nonsensical, yet strangely compelling. I am reminded of the image of the poet in Plato as moonstruck, possessed by mania, filled with divine madness. How close is this to Demaree’s dystopian universe where there are “people that live in tents / hanging from the moon” all of whom presumably have been reading Pablo Neruda (40). “all gods are loose,” says Demaree. When it comes to poetry, Plato would agree.
Demaree wants us to feel rather than think. He leads us to understand that whether it is external or internal (the stuff of worries, fears and imaginings), whether it is metaphoric or concrete, there is something fundamentally amiss. The moon has fallen out of the sky and out of our hearts. At once a psychological crisis and a global, environmental one. The moon, once for lovers, ancient mystery cults, natural cycles, even the telling of time, is extinguished. The author’s response it to “claw,” to want to make things right and, facing his inability to do so, to confront failure.
Formal choices are crucial to collections sense of destructive speed. Complete lack of punctuation and typical lineation, heightened emotional tone and risk-taking metaphors support a merging of form and content that often disorients. The collection’s visual impact is reminiscent of prose blocks, each page bearing a short “paragraph” of relatively equal length with most of the paragraphs bearing within them complete sentences, often very simply constructed, highly charged present tense statements. The white space of the page is welcome and important, as if framing a chaos within. I am struck by the post-modern sense of language as subversive, not trustworthy, a complex of signs and symbols that leads us into a self-referential abyss. The cumulative impact of each grouping of short often declarative, at times imperative, statements is tornado-like, disturbingly powerful.
Yet in a collection that continually references protest, destruction and provisional survival, I am most touched by the very familiar, that which seems particular to this author as they are depicted as irretrievably lost, real places and things (“indiana” “ohio” “old maps with the moon drawn over the midwest”). Landmarks and ordinary activities such as “driving around the the supermarket parking lot” are sadly dissociated from their previously constructed meaning. Rather than tell the story of how this situation came to pass, how and why the moon became grounded and what it means for the reader, clawing alludes to kind of present tense aftermath, a predicament. It is a catalogue of the author’s response. Obstacles to logical understanding, disruptions in the expected relationships between things, parts of speech, typical symbols, archetypes, places and time, are presented as strategic, central to the author’s project. The juxtaposition of statements such as “the children are beyond such simple explanations” and “the shadows of the moon are our newest despair” creates a multifaceted anxiety, an urgency. Something of vital importance to our survival is being communicated. If only we could place it in an agreed-on frame of reference, then we could shake the meaning loose.
clawing at the grounded moon is organized circularly (a star with each page a spikey effervescence). Moving around the matter at hand, we are challenged to piece together just what this cataclysmic occurrence has been, continues to be, or in fact will be, as there is a speculative quality to much of its anguish. Not unlike listening to a disturbed patient (or deeply traumatized individual) who insists the “grounded moon” provides both emotional and metaphoric meaning, the reader strains to empathize with and trust in the author’s obsessions.
Page one of the collection displays the books two most striking features: syntactical craftedness and propulsive energy. It opens, “the tongue of our universe just dropped” from the mouth of / the name of whatever sonnet a god could bear to memorize / the numbers needed to make a world”. Then a shift to the simple declarative, “i was already in the car” followed by a series of paratactic sentences and fragments, “I am headed there” “i want to know” “i want to count” “i want to stop” that capture a crescendoing tone of distress. Frequent repetition feels like a drumbeat, a mental double stitching that provides emotional emphasis. Rhyme and rhythmic energy keep us engaged with a mysterious text that eschews resolution, aesthetically reminiscent of jazz or abstract expressionistic painting.
The implication of the reader as participant or agent also draws us in. See the opening lines of page 8: “energy fiends lets get ours meet me in the crater before the / open mouths disappear before the dilapidated steel mills / become chicken coops for the fearful before the prelude / can elude us.” I suspect I am not the only one who know themselves to be, at times, an energy fiend, although not likely to hide in a steel mill cum chicken coop. I respond strongly to the collection’s diction, its plainspokenness. Emphatic, relatively simple nouns and verbs pile one upon the other: “i can never sleep” “my feet slam into the dream world” “that is our survival” with a variety of effects. Each thought-parcel sounds clear, convincing. Their relationship to each other: description followed by action, abstraction, commentary, self-reflexive humor, etc. meaningfully perplexes. It is as if the reader too is waking from that dream, trying to stand, walk, make coffee, read the paper.
One of my favorite pages is 49 which speaks directly of a political and societal breakdown: “there is rain there is a pool the weight of the moon is crump- / ling our country” and goes on to complain of the commodification of even celestial bodies: “there is a politics now that says / we should drill into the moon dissect the moon give each / citizen a hunk of it”. Moments like this are astute. I recently read about the profitability of moon rocks, and elsewhere that NASA is in the process of disinfecting Mars-dust before hauling it back to Earth. When Demaree says, “there are nineteen bills in congress right now with proposals about the moon” I am with him, this is not hyperbole.
I admire this collection for its boldness and its risk-taking. It limiting of formal elements feels authentic, born of necessity. The moon’s demystification and ultimate devaluation, our societies embrace of the transactional, global warming, individual moral blindness, perhaps even just growing older and lonelier, fuel Demaree’s enterprise. These are pressing concerns, uniquely and often exquisitely expressed. The collection does not often drop to earth, touch the reader’s heart and conscience, but when it does we register a too-familiar howl.
Victoria Korth’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Stickman Review, Stone Canoe, Ocean State Review, Tar River Poetry, Spoon River Poetry Review, Barrow Street and widely elsewhere. Prizes include the 2020 Montreal International Poetry Prize, Streetlight Magazine 2021 Poetry Prize, among others. Cord Color was released from Finishing Line Press in 2015. Tacking Stitch is forthcoming, 2022. She is a grateful MFA graduate of the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. She lives in Western New York State where she is a practicing psychiatrist caring for the chronically mentally ill.