There are numerous tensions at play within the 59 untitled poems that make up The Luxury, the new collection from Columbus writer Darren Demaree. But chief among these is the push-and-pull between the unfolding climate disaster – rising temperatures, more severe storms, increased flooding – and the allure of the afterlife, which the poet believes could dampen an individual’s desire to effect the change needed to avert catastrophe.
“If you’re a considering a world after this one, and you have one foot in this world and one in the next, it’s fair to ask how dedicated you might be toward conservation, toward trying to sort of right the ship,” said Demaree, who will celebrate the book’s release with a reading at Two Dollar Radio HQ on Wednesday, Feb. 1, appearing alongside fellow poets and William Evans.
Demaree said he wrote much of the collection “looking out windows and wishing things were different,” working in short bursts at the kitchen table in the early months of COVID-19. Often, Demaree wrote while seated next to his children, whose constant pandemic presence prevented him from retreating to the solitude of his office, as he had with past collections.
“Most of my creative [energy] was spent on the kids, because you were a cruise director all of the time, and you were sort of inventing the school schedule and inventing activities,” Demaree said. “I can’t even tell you how many voices I broke out and how many costumes we wore. ... My kids are brilliant and just sort of bouncing off walls, and I had to join in the process and sort of give them the parts of myself that normally I can tuck away.”
Fortunately, this suited the approach Demaree adopted for The Luxury, which centers short poems constructed of tightly controlled lines. (In true “chicken or the egg?” form, the poet isn’t sure if he landed on the tightly coiled style prior to starting on the collection or if it was drawn out of him by the circumstances.)
With prior collection A Child Walks in the Dark, Demaree all but abandoned form, disregarding capitalization and punctuation and leaning into repetition, returning to certain words and phrases as a means of “controlling the music” in each poem. The Luxury, in contrast, favors command, Demaree approaching each piece on an almost granular level, dictating the cadence by homing in on each syllable.
“I really wanted to feel this almost tightening of each line as I worked,” Demaree said. “And spending a lot of time on each poem sort of fighting with syllables gets maddening and fascinating. This was the first book I’ve done that had any dedicated form to it, and shit’s hard. For someone who really loves the music of it, it's almost impossible to try to almost completely strip that away. … It really made it difficult and fun, and I don’t want to do it again.”
Throughout, Demaree returns to a world in ruin, writing: “there is flooding everywhere”; “good lord the wind is dry/there are no songs anymore”; “fields went barren out of raw guilt.”
The poet doesn’t spare himself, either, wrestling with everything from the idea of centering writing amid the increased ecological devastation (“to recreate the forests/on the page which is made/out of trees”) to bringing children into a world already beset by a scarcity of resources.
“As I was working through these different ideas and different stances … the guilt came back to me, and how much I wanted to have kids and how important that was to me. But having three children, like I have, in a world that’s overpopulated, there’s some weight to bear,” Demaree said. “And however much joy it’s brought to my life, questioning whether or not it’s constricting the joy of someone else.”
Rather than shying from this guilt, Demaree leaned into it, believing that this sort of self-interrogation is essential to making any progress on the outsized issues confronting the planet. And while these impulses might have drawn out his bleakest tendencies, he remained buoyed through the process by the lack of give he viewed within his children, who often remained in eyeshot as he wrote.
“If you were to talk to my oldest daughter about these ideas, she’d essentially be like, ‘Forget it. I’m going to save the world,’” Demaree said. “Their attitude is hope all of the time, and that’s the blessing of the young. But they’re also fairly defiant children, and I take pride in that. Finding that defiance when you’re slogging through a project like this, that’s hope to me, and that’s what it felt like.”