REVIEW OF NICK DEMSKE’S NICK DEMSKE
Nick Demske has a myriad of personalities, but don’t call it a personality disorder. The anti-sonnet poems in his first collection croon and screech at the same time. If you want to get a glimpse at what he’s up to, just read Joyelle McSweeney’s fantastic judge’s citation, in which she asks: “How can we tell this dancer from his nasty dance?” This collection is both electric and pleasurable in its elasticity, a characteristic Demske takes full advantage of in constructing the ultimate, gender-neutral poet persona full of critique and laud. The poems are combustible, combing through American pop culture, political issues, and literary references. In the poem “Everything Personal,” the collective voice claims an identity stretched across Dr. Kevorkian, Dr. Huckstable, and Dr. Frankenstein in the same sentence. One is immediately drawn to the taut and daring language within the pages of Nick Demske.
The second poem in the book, “Common Sense,” prepares the reader for the no-holds barred experience of Nick Demske:
I will make me beautiful if it takes
Uglying everything else; a reflect
Ion so unfamiliar you feel impolite confronting it. I am the awestruck lex
Icogragaphers, starting back into a nightingale. I will beat these
Precious children back to life. Fuck me, shit me.
Remind me what its like to be offended, Nick Demske.
Ah. Already with thee.
Demske delivers on the promise, maintaining a mordant tone throughout the collection. He plays with and demystifies the sonnet form without straying too far from it. Even in the poem “Sonnet” he stays true to the form’s tradition by poking its schematics, “because I say it’s / poetry. Because I am the substitute teacher, better than any / [insert six more lines here].”
The speaker critiques contemporary poets, like in the opening lines of “Words Will Never”: “We demand accessible poetry, but our access prances home / Denied. We squirrels bury nuts never to be exhumed.” By appropriating popular culture and colloquial language, Demske makes each poem radiate with rapturous familiarity.
Later in the poem, the poet-speaker locates the craft of poetry in a “splintery, flammable porch,” and to fully appreciate the bravado of this collection, a reader needs to just pull up a chair and watch the porch burn. Even when chaos seems to contribute to the speaker’s arm-wrestling match with existentialism, honesty reigns in “Flat/Counter-Fiat,” where the speaker admits “I actually have / no idea what the weather will be like” and:
I’m faking it. For serious. Unqualified,
Transgendered, forcing laughter at obtuse drollery as funny as the counter
Feit bills lining our G-strings. But it’s my Tupperware party. I can cry
Wolf and blame the Tourette’s until the motions gone through to inspire
Orgasms so genuine we all forget our manners.
The conflation of playful, acerbic and sexually-charged tones leads to an ironic narcissism that does not relent, and believe me, it’s a good thing. Demske keeps a breakneck pace throughout the entire book, divided into non-consecutive sections (i., 2., section C, xi., etc.), because the point seems to be an exhaustion of all possibility and the eradication of conventional structures.
Beneath the critique, counterculture, and comedic obscenity in which the speaker tackles artistic intention and takes its lunch money, there is a layer of vulnerability and perseverance in “Fully Dressed in an Empty Bathtub,” the book’s final poem:
We draw ponies.
Over and over again, to keep the fires of hell
At bay. Pretty ponies. The kind that paralyze you beneath
The generous weight of their bodies. I could’ve killed
Myself that night, but instead I plucked these shards from my flesh, licked
The lacerations. Fashioned this glowing mosaic.
These lines do not undo the necessary damage of Nick Demske, but communicate the essentiality of being human and being heard.
At its core, Nick Demske progresses from a suicide mission to jail cell in the penultimate poem “They All Lived” in which the speaker has “been rattling the bars / Of an unlocked cage,” reminding the reader that every jab at academia’s ivory tower and culture is at the poet’s expense. I believe this book is as important as it is ambitious, a demonstration of demolition poetry. Demolition is vital in that it leads to extraction of precious commodities or building something new. The poem “My Mom Is Dead” clues the reader in to a portion of Demske’s motivation: “the pioneers of this yaw / Found their voices by blaring them raw.”
Stephen Danos earned an MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry from Columbia College Chicago, where he was the recipient of a Follett Fellowship and the Eileen Lannan Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Lo-Ball, Bateau, Juked, Columbia Poetry Review, and Phantom Limb.