The advantage of the poetic sequence over the single poem is the ability to develop a theme through repetition. A single dream may have the power to whisper secrets, wander inventively, and terrify, but even a nightmare is only as scary as the time it takes for the dreamer’s heart to slow down upon waking. Imagine, however, the same nightmare, night after night after night. Such a dream would create a separate and traumatized reality, a reality in which day and night are set in unwitting opposition to one another. Many Full Hands Applauding Inelegantly, a collection of three poetic sequences from poet Darren Demaree, is doing much the same kind of sleepless, world-bending work.
By way of caution, it is a difficult read. And if we’re being as honest as Demaree himself, we have to say that this book is not an ideal beachhead for readers trying to storm the shore of poetry for the first time. But if you can overlook concerns about its accessibility, which we can and do, then you have in your hands a compelling manuscript rife with flight, violence, sound, and fire. Allow us to take each collection in turn.
A Violent Sound in Almost Every Place
If you’ve ever read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, then you know about Raskolnikov’s plague dream. A swarm of microscopic bugs sweeps over the world, and those infected by the swarm come to see themselves as uniquely intelligent and extraordinary beings. This in turn leads to a war of near-extinction as the “extraordinary” men and women hack each other to brutal and senseless deaths. Demaree’s first sequence, A Violent Sound in Almost Every Place, seems to have its origins in the same kind of fever sleep.
Here the repeating themes are of tongues, speaking words “meaningless but powerful.” Of warmth, both human and ash-apocalyptic. Of failed nonsense republics, dead bodies, and roots, always roots, connecting lone trees to one another in the silent underground dark of burial fields and suicide bunkers. Each poem in the sequence has shrapnel echos of the others, but some of the poems emerge above the flaming surface and act as Rosetta stones for the others. One of these is poem #208, which reads, in part:
I believe in the language of salvation.
I believe that language loses certainty
with each decibel it rises […]
If we must use words
to give faith, can we make them inexact
& quiet? Can we make those words
the symbol for radical, inclusive searching?
Can I tell you a secret? Can I whisper it?
This poem wouldn’t work early in the sequence, where paranoid chaos and an animal striving for dominance, regardless of merit, dominate all other concerns (only later do we see the reverberations of the titular violent sound beginning to fade). But if you’ll endure this particular storm, you might just live long enough to see some strange and novel flowers growing silently out of the ground.
We Are Arrows
The most direct of Demaree’s three sequences, We Are Arrows, gives greater altitude and perspective to themes already introduced, in particular the recurring motifs of heat and fire, fleeting strength, and the primal spontaneity that comes with being instinctively alive. In this sequence, mankind is a volley of arrows, loosed by forces we can’t see or understand; a volley that gains strength as it rises, brutality as it falls, and finally lands violently, renaming what it destroys. The final poem of the sequence, quoted here in part, speaks for itself:
We are almost completely behind us,
always mostly invisible to our own eyes.
We are pointed forward.
We are the anticipation of action and the
sentiment to explain the dimple and the cut
of our arrival.
We should, with our inherent violence,
be more dedicated to regaining the paradise
of the sky.
We should have no fear of getting lost in
We have always returned from our flights.
We have registered greatly amongst the
To go from the clean and untroubled simplicity of the arrow to the complicated vulnerability of the bird, as Demaree does in the book’s final section, is a stunning hard right turn. And yet, this deliberate and violent shift reveals Demaree’s strength as a curator of the written word. His task here, wildly successful, is to mirror the entire arc of the book in a single instant, to match with his pacing the abrupt moment when an arrow finds its intended.
All the Birds Are Leaving
Demaree saves the most complicated and challenging sequence, All the Birds Are Leaving, for the third act. Here, we wander, in far murkier territory than before, alongside a narrator struggling with entropy and loss and the entirely rational fear that “there will be more winter than you have fire.” Old themes echo anew in these darker, heavier pages, but a new repeating motif makes a fresh and frustrated appearance: hope. Winged hope, perhaps, with all the attendant difficulties of capture, but hope nonetheless. To quote too much from this section would be to rob the reader of the view from the summit, but this particular gem feels representative of the sequence as a whole:
We only feel
when they are broken
& with time
it is the same thing,
with time we return
only after the great pain.
Setting the book down after many nights of reading, we are left to wonder: What are the many full hands and what are they clapping for? Is it better to fly as an arrow or a bird? Where is the fire that will last us the winter, and is it worth looking for? Like any spiritual test worth its salt, this book offers more questions than answers. There is a kind of emptiness at the periphery of each sequence that allows the reader’s mind to go off into countless moral and allegorical questions like these; the edges of the cave truly contain only what you take with you. For these reasons, we recommend this challenging and complex work without reservation. Celebrate it with great care.