TOM HIBBARD Reviews
SELECTED POEMS by Nick Demske
(Fence Books, Albany, N.Y., 2010)
SELECTED POEMS by Nick Demske
(Fence Books, Albany, N.Y., 2010)
FINISHING THE VISIBLE
“the sea of unnumberable torches raises for us a new splendour”
-St. John Perse
In these tumultuous times, it’s difficult to know where one is going. Horrendous eventualities appear as apparitions. What tumultuous times you say? The tumultuous times that the static established news media are incapable of seeing or talking about. The tumultuous times that bear witness every day to our society’s crumbling infrastructure—of which the mindless hysteria of the “conservative movement” is a symptom as much as a cause. These tumultuous times are the result of abandonment, in a wide number of different ways, of transcribed beliefs and virtues, beliefs and virtues to which we pay lip service but which in fact hold little prominence concerning our motives and actions. But these tumultuous times are also a sign and an assurance of hidden change—of a new infrastructure, of new understanding and adherence to beliefs and virtues of which our learning is ongoing, of new sensitivity and compactness.
This seems to be the message of Nick Demske’s highly original 2010 poetry collection, selected for publication in the Fence Modern Poets Series by Joyelle McSweeney. Partly we know that this is the message of the collection because it is titled with only the poet’s name. The wars and terrors reflected in its lines of psychic scream and misery from the lower depths of human reality are most aptly summed up, the author seems to conclude, in the ever-pressing prospect of his implausible being. The subject of Nick Demske’s poetry collection is Nick Demske, that is, the self.
Of course, “the way down is the way up.” Many of the poems are dedicated to various people, people dear to the author, and the regret and angst in the poems are so clearly and forthrightly delineated, so heroically documented that, as with Burroughs Naked Lunch, we are willing to award a positivity to their authorship, even nobility. The poems are Christ-like in that Demske is taking society’s ills and sufferings upon himself. We follow Demske, with no resolution in sight, with no means of escape from the concrete walls of dread and torment, as he wades through the ontological filth and irrelevance with unwavering hope and love. He is writing the poems for others, with the vivid memory of long-lost life, a once “nice neighborhood,” attempting to rise from the abyss of apprehension and falseness to a secure sweet freedom of home. Dandelion Park. Muskego Beach. The neighborhood kids catching fireflies while all the moms and dads are busy cooking dinner outside on barbecues.
“Blues Sonnet,” written “For Peggy,” and with the epigraph from the Gospel of Matthew, “for they shall be comforted,” begins
We rent our trousers, but that’s the fashion.We smote our goat, but you’re a vegetarian.We masqueraded in fecal cosmetics,Snarled and growled in canine rhetoric.We caked on the crematoria and still! Our nameBrand sackcloth is so last year. We maimOur temples, kneel on marbles, we dragNails through cheeks, we bum rush body bags.
Though this is the first poem in “Section VIII,” past half way in the book, in terms of the illnesses, fetishes, phobias, atrocities, man’s inhumanity to man, things you don’t want to know about, Demske is just getting warmed up. Is it out of spite that he delves so unrelentingly into the complex defense mechanism of our easily manipulated super-egos? Or is he, like the great Marquis himself, conversing in a language we must learn to speak—with no forbidden subject? No matter how absolutely crime must be condemned, our actions never fall very far from the Tree of Life. Who doubts their ridiculousness and folly? Everything else is meaningless. Everything else is deception. “What can a meaning beyond my condition mean to me? I can comprehend only in human terms?”(1) The unreal distortions caused by suppressing reality are undeniably a part of life. As Demske says, “I’m faking it. For real.” We recognize the unthinkable when we look inside our minds. And this is about more than what is hidden. This is about our most obvious desires.Obvious or hidden, clumsy or dishonest, what difference does it make? Andre Gide said he didn’t like miracles because he considered them impious.(2) What he meant was that it’s more important to appreciate the miraculous as it is part of the nature of daily life. True miracles don’t stand in the way of discovery. Within the framework of these irreproachable goals and wants, these necessities, the absence of a “higher fidelity” is at work changing them into such circuitous protocols and status symbols, in my opinion, such tell-tale misleading frippery as “Voter I-Ds” and “Patriot Acts.” The more we experience, the easier it is to place the comic with the tragic. Just as the wrenching storm of Demske’s scandalous subject matter rages within one of the most inoffensive and innocent of poetic forms, the fourteen-line rhyming sonnet, our wants give rise to our most shocking wantonness, our most symptomatic and astonishing feats of self-destruction.
I want a raise. I want a divorce. I want You.I want to be free. I want you to keep this.I want to be good in bed. I want to be black. It want toWin. I want the biggest one you’ve got. I want justice.(from “Dying Words”)
I took off my make-up: a slug drenched in Lot’sWife’s ashes(“Rhetorical Prayer”)
Like poetry too complex to be beautiful.(“Put Your Face In My Tongue”)
PRISM BREAKfor FrankThere is no zen in history. Just a pronoun and a simileFor parable. Before the workday is over, I will have permanentlyAltered this skyline. This just in.Run don’t walk. These beer goggles rearrange my reflectionInto a sexy protagonist. Incessantly positiveTest results. High-rises wildly embrAcing like dominoes. There’s gotta be way out of here. CausativeAnd effect. Shackles and chains. “No centering Om,” Fr.Time tells the monk. Nick Demske, you are the most beautiful girl in the WorldTrade Center, when refracted through adequate spectrums. I forGot to eat today. I am incapable of justifying my love forYou. Here is the best offering we have to burn, which disproves the oldTruth it’s the thought that counts. But I shatter the glass onlyTo mend it reordered. That I might yet transcend this old mantra Forgive me.
I think the phrase “this old man” masked in the last line of this poem is the poet referring to himself. One thing about Demske’s poetry is it is extremely well written. The wit as it presents its insights, again and again in a single poem, is finely blended, turned neatly and unobtrusively. “Peasants dan / Cing in gutters, commoners singing like so many / Semi-trucks braking. This is the ultra-vulgarity to they who make / The definitions.” The wit builds into meter and rhythm. Does anyone say to Demske “What are you talking about?” Does anyone ask him—as they asked Kerouac before him in Washington Square—why are you talking about death. “Why are you so tragic & gloomy?”(3) Perhaps someday they will. Do they notice that mixed with the accepting wit, mingled with the quiet, forgiving irony, is indignation and disbelief at the disregard and neglect? Do they take seriously the words? Do they notice the heavy burdens that the poet carries, the burdens of unattended problems, unanswered cries, scorned responsibilities, unremembered pasts? Demske seems to consider himself one of the “ninety-nine percent,” one of those uninvited to Wall Street’s sumptuous banquet but crashed the party anyway—the “wall” part of it especially. He seems to ally himself with those unequally treated, on whose backs the budgets of the disconnected, inaccessible non-taxpaying corporate power structure are “balanced.” Does anyone hear in Demske’s murk and mist the echoes of Ginsberg’s prophecy about “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,…”? The wrought imagery itself is prey, though it definitely remains preferable to the bowdlerized Expressionism of Mitt Romney talking about “class warfare” or Newt Gingrich pompously “uncovering” President Obama’s “socialist” agenda. How can a society thrive as a whole under such dire constraints? The purity it touts is the very agent of its poisoning. This is the downfall of tyranny.
Demske’s poetry is just the opposite. Demske isn’t talking about death; he’s talking about life. What his writing defiles it cleanses; what it gives up it retains. It’s methodology extends beyond itself alone, into a super-symmetry of sparse eroticism and consciousness. Its writing is based on the expectation of discovery. One line inspires and unfolds into the next. It draws breath from diversity and division. It “dances” and “sings” and loves “to say I told you so.” It is a form of greeting. It “moves independent.” It jumps off roofs. “This is the most beautiful stool sample I have ever see / N. A stool sampler could search her whole life for a specimen half this perfect.” Like the true slave of the genuine infinite that he is, Demske searches all that is arbitrary and substantive to know and become familiar with the paths of this generation’s reconciliation, the intimate paths of freedom down which he has walked for so long and so many times before. Demske seeks a new more tranparent system, a new depth of action, a reordering of illness and health, of what matters and what has no importance, of flight and invisibility—perhaps beyond even economies. He seeks the void that illuminates the world, Hemingway’s laconic reflections of perfect order, a separateness, an intense moment “flawless and self-contained.”(4) He seeks his own bright star on the Wisconsin beer drinkers anti-fascist Walk of Fame. He seeks an escape from a divine destiny.
On the back of Demske’s collection is a letter he received from conservative 1st Dist. Congressman Paul Ryan congratulating Demske for his “dedication” and “great achievement.” What? Paul Ryan interested in poetry? The image is eerily reminiscent of Herod or Pontius Pilate. But perhaps I’m mistaken. Partly the heroic depiction of Demske in his poetry collection is derived from the beautiful philosophy of Existentialism that has Mankind facing negation with a joyful sense of unlimited freedom, the freedom to “choose himself.” This is the exalted consciousness and creativity that we extol. But Wisconsinites might find this rendition somewhat exaggerated and impractical. Gloom is a part of life. What about Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”? Though death is I suppose inescapable, the hazy monotony of isolation, catching Muskies and camping out adding up to “nothingness”—perhaps this is the effect not of our human condition but of our inhuman condition—the cheap scary Cold War degraded account of the human condition. Perhaps this is the effect of appearance or fraudulence strongly put in the place of or completely blocking out our view of reality. Demske’s poetry hints at this also. Something makes us unsatisfied with life, some lie, some act of concealment. We feel sick. We find refuge in darkness. We accept less than what is ours; we endure more than what is necessary. Yet in either case, human or inhuman, the message is that the future is worth fighting for.
1. Albert Camus, quoted in Sartre’s original review of The Stranger.
2. Andre Gide, Journals.
3. Jack Kerouac, Heaven and Other Poems.
4. Jean-Paul Sartre, original review of The Stranger
Tom Hibbard has had recent work published in the last Australian issue of Jacket, and the current issue of Moria. He also has a new collection of poetry, Sacred River of Consciousness, from Moon Willow press. He is currently involved in the political struggles in the U.S. and world against mindless far-right extremism.