Fence Books, 2010
Nick Demske’s first book, Nick Demske—it appears just once on the spine, as on a self-titled album—may have begun as a send-up of traditional poetic form. But if so, it transcends satire by doing what the best formal poetry does, flourishing under its own constraints. The book is a collection of sonnets, but while each poem has 14 lines and follows a consistent rhyme scheme (often slant or eye rhyme), the lines vary widely in length and have no regular meter, and Demske frequently breaks lines mid-word to conform to the scheme. This gimmick would get tiresome quickly if the breaks weren’t so intentional, so felicitous, creating jackknifing polysemies and mental sonics. Take, for example, the first stanza of “Common Sense”:
I didn’t think it was loaded. But it was a kn
Ife. So we’re both right. I foresee
Blinding enlightenment. I beat these children like the deadest of horsies.
The people cheer at their victory. Peasants dan
By isolating the “kn” morpheme in “knife,” the “k” goes unsilent, creating a pleasingly awkward stutter like a nervous criminal in a movie. With a quick glance down, we see that the “rhyme” here is between “a kn” and “dan”—a stretch in any case—but “dan” is also only part of a word, the next line beginning with “Cing.” As such the poems are like puzzles with tricky interworking parts: Which break came first, the “kn” or the “dan”?
This move—let’s call it the Demske—occurs again and again, so it does more than point to the essential arbitrariness of any form; it breaks the whole book, becomes a form of its own. Demske’s obsession with “bad form” (as he put it in an interview in Poets & Writers) is matched by his bad language, which makes a mockery of high-toned poetic speech, as in “Put Your Face in My Tongue”:
Yea, I saith unto thee: a meadow of summer
Fruit, a damsel with a dulcimer
The many dappled scimitar of sky thy lips art cleft
At. Nobody is moved like a crime scene invest
Igation. Like poetry too complex to be beautiful. Reader,
Ideal if a little unliterate ….
When not wearing formality like a silly dress, Demske has a tendency to slip Tourette’s-like into scatology, a kind of compulsive shit-talking—see “I’m going to buttfuck / You in the mouth”—like a friend who fires off so many stupid jokes in a row one or two are bound to be funny (I laughed out loud at “If you’re going to act like a brat, // I’m going to eat you like one” from the poem “Hotdog”). Those who find beauty in the lower, trashier registers in Gabe Gudding’s, Chelsea Minnis’s, or K. Silem Mohammad’s work will find it in abundance here.
Demske’s cadences and rhymes often read like good rap, even when they’re not directly referencing it (as in “My Name Is” and “Pop Sonnet”). The constant third-person self-references, too, are hip-hop-esque (“Remind me what it’s like to be offended, Nick Demske”), but also ghazal-like—this book is never more ridiculous than it is serious, and for every knee-jerk sex joke there’s a flash of brilliance. The last poem, “Fully Dressed in an Empty Bathtub,” especially hints at the very real pain this art was born of: “I could’ve killed // Myself that night, but instead I plucked these shards from my flesh, licked / The lacerations. Fashioned this glowing mosaic.” Nick Demske is a fearless debut, razor-sharp and full of hooks.
(Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.)