Although Forage closed as a journal, we were recently offered the opportunity to review a collection of poetry from a former contributor, Darren C. Demaree. This was an opportunity we didn’t want to turn down. The concept behind Darren C. Demaree’s prose-poem collection, A Fire Without Light, as a response to the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA, is an intriguing one to this Briton who feels slightly distanced from American politics. As convinced as I was, and still am, that Trump presents more than enough material to inspire reams of poetry and prose, I held reservations that such a collection could hold enough emotional range to keep me interested. This collection, however, kept me interested throughout. It’s far from being just about Trump, and I think that is the key.
The prose-poem form is an inspired medium for this collection. Although a potentially constrained form, it provides a springboard for an immediate sense of intimacy with which to explore a mixture of the more visceral and seemingly considered response; not just to what Trump’s election means at the macro-level, but the way in which it causes the author to analyse their life at the micro-level.
Although Demaree seems to deliberately avoid any attempt to cast his voice as that of the everyman—in fact, there are times when it feels desperately isolated and almost feral—the first of the numbered prose-poems, #3, ends with “I will sing as often as I can” as a reminder that one voice is better than none. Having seen the level of response to Trump throughout the world of poetry it seems that this promise to sing is not only indicative of Demaree’s voice but also of the response of poets and poetry across the globe.
In some ways, the poetic response to post-truth politics reminds me of the so-called ‘poet-soldiers’ of the First World War. This comparison holds weight in Demaree’s collection, not least because of the use of conflict as a central theme. While the refrain of #13 reminds us that “This is all conflict”, the most profound sense of conflict is perceived in the narrator’s voice; at times in direct response to Trump and at others to “a world which didn’t understand how tenuous things were becoming” (#36).
Unlike some of the earlier poetry of the First World War, A Fire Without Light offers no romanticised vision of home. Ohio comes to the fore throughout this collection, no more so than in the quotable and memorable #86: “I know most of Ohio wants him to make the world like most of Ohio, but I’m telling you that most of Ohio is dead.”
Having looked at a map of Ohio, mostly shaded in dark Republican red to illustrate the weight of votes for Trump in his election, it is no surprise that someone who feels as threatened by that result—and it is clear that the author is not merely politically opposed to it, they are appalled at a deeper moral level—should feel as caged by their home as Demaree shows in this collection.
For all that the prevailing sense in the earlier pieces is one of anger, and the form employed lends itself to short, sharp bursts of that anger, Demaree retains a poetic touch; no more so than in the intricately paced #45 which juxtaposes anger with the narrator’s overriding love for, and need to protect, his family.
Although that aspect of the author’s life offers one of the few bright threads within this collection, there are other significant motifs which bind the individual pieces together. Perhaps the most surprising for me was the way in which it lives up to its dedication to “every person that believes empathy is our most important strength” through attempts to enter Trump’s mind and understand the vulnerability of perhaps the most cocksure personality on the planet. Even #113’s acknowledgement that our eventual demise “won’t even be his fault” offers one of the most understanding insights into the childlike tendencies of Trump I’ve seen from anyone, let alone someone vehemently opposed to his presence and politics.
I sense this surprising empathy is a product of the narrator as a devoted family man. Even when he is conflicted, wrestling with anger, recognising his unwillingness to “be the good man my wife says I am” in #172, the sense of willing sacrifice in order to make a difference is always apparent.
The natural world is a staple of the latter part of its collection, with tumultuous nature seemingly symbolic of changing climate—both meteorological and political—punctuated by references to the bodies which will be lost along the way. So while my comparison to the poetry of the First World War may seem extreme, nothing is quite as evocative of The Somme as #343’s “We will bury our dead beneath the last beauty they remembered”.
What seems like an absence of hope could well be an abundance of reality. The recognition of the blurring between dividing lines is there, but more so the understanding that picking up the pieces in the aftermath with be a battle in itself. As stated in #435, “An ending would be too easy”.
I don’t know Darren, so I don’t know how much liberty he may have taken in writing any of these pieces. I do recognise sincerity—it’s here in spades—and, if this is a war, he seems like someone I’d want alongside me in the trenches. There is a raw honesty about this collection which acknowledges shortcomings, whether personal, local or national, and in the face of someone like Trump, who knows only soundbites irrespective of the truth, I’ll take honesty any day. Maybe it’s all we have left with which to arm ourselves.
The long list of individual pieces from this collection which have been published is a testament to the standalone value of each. The depth and range of the collection itself is a testament to the talent of the author.