In his ecopoetic collection the luxury, Darren C. Demaree draws upon the four classical elements of water, air, fire, and earth to connect their associative power to the mutable and erratic nature of our contemporary natural world. Formally structured as a series of untitled poems comprised of three linked tercets, this collection juxtaposes human perception and invention against the competing forces of nature, primal and godlike. Our end is the overriding narrative of the luxury, and Demaree grapples with how to live in a time when one’s actions and pleasures can also be measured in units of destruction. Whatever humanity’s future course may be, the luxury contends that the course of the planet will be more lasting.
Humanity’s role in the natural world is always at question in the luxury, as in the poem “we are salt the world is,” where “nativity inhabits / landscape as part of scene”—our birth into earth’s element is part of the world’s backdrop, not its essential action. Yet, we humans chatter on as if we’re the main characters “instead of tending root.” Even worse, in “we are the free weapons,” is the human bent for setting “our fires / everywhere.” Demaree posits that humans, not content with a secondary role, have:
counted seeds as our own
used our thumbs to gouge the earth
we are the free weapons
Here, the generative act of gathering and planting seeds can also be something that extracts from the Earth, our toil so intense and self-focused that we do not see the toll.
The toll of human action permeates the luxury, where rivers become “a grave’s edge of consumption,” fish die off in creeks, smoke drifts field to field, crops flood, deer are displaced to highways by endless construction, and forests are lost. Demaree contrasts human activity with human perception, examining our ability to know or acknowledge our impact on the world. As seen in “native to a land free,” the answer appears to be “no,” or perhaps only in our dreams:
native to a land free
from plans we are still sleeping
in the buried gardens
of understanding. . . .
For a group that sets itself apart from other animals by its ability to create something new from the world’s many parts, including and especially language, humanity’s reluctance to grasp the consequences of our always-expansion is a mystery to Demaree. Throughout the luxury, his poems attempt to reconcile our greatest strengths with our greatest weaknesses, as can be seen in “I think of the naming,” where Demaree considers those first attempts to sound out letters and syllables:
. . . the roll
our tongues had to make to lift
the steam of our lungs up
past or teeth to be roundly
heard as beautiful sounds
Yet, for Demaree, the brilliance of human comprehension—our ability to give names for both the natural world and for our own creations—pales beside our inability to correctly identify our own impacts on the planet: “we did this for all things now / what will we call the end.”
Given that endings are a main focus of the luxury, humanity’s creation stories are a natural offshoot of Demaree’s efforts to understand the ecological crisis that we currently face. If Adam and Eve are our beginning, their story arc from nativity to elegy is one we continue to follow. However, Demaree’s exploration of God and religion crashes time and again against the earth, as seen in “how much care do we give”:
how much care do we give
to the nest once it’s proven
that we cannot fly high
enough to build a heaven
that we imagined real . . .
Demaree seems less concerned about if God created humans or humans created God, and more concerned with the blind hope of religious belief that can cause humanity to not attempt to save the world on its own. For the oblivious humans still using coal in “we know winter windows,” he calls upon a flood to disabuse them of such hope, saying “they still think god is coming / stop it’s the oceans turn.” Instead of embracing the promise of an afterlife, Demaree asks us to listen to our planet and its language of flood and fire, dust and ash. “i tell you this world is / heaven,” he states in one of his final tercets, “so the wind is holy”:
. . . that when this world ends
there will be no more god
to worship do you save us . . .
Ultimately. the luxury is a plea that we begin to see how our planet itself is holy and worth much greater attention and care than humanity has given it.
As a whole, the repetitive tercet structure Demaree utilizes in the luxury creates a strong sense of cohesion among the individual works, as does his lack of titles for individual poems. His use of repetition, while infrequent, heightens tension and creates new, unexpected movement in his catalog of tercets. The tercets’ lack of punctuation also builds momentum, opening some poems to multiple possible readings, with certain words, lines, or phrases able to be attached to what comes before and after. Similar to the above-as-below technique in haiku, these open associations often expand the short lines of Demaree’s poems. While sometimes this free-flowing structure affects the clarity of individual poems in the luxury, it also suggests new and exciting avenues of thought that the poet might wish to explore in future work.
What a heavy word, “future,” in light of the complexities revealed in the luxury and in consideration of future generations. Demaree seeks, but finds little balance between the needs of humanity and the planet we inhabit in his collection; our children inherit—from all the luxury we’ve afforded ourselves—a world where water, air, fire, and earth rage from this lack of equilibrium.
About the Reviewer
Lisa Higgs is the recipient of a 2022 Minnesota State Arts Board grant providing creative support for Minnesota artists. Her third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in February 2019. Her poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA, Folio, Rhino, Sugar House Review, and WaterStone Review, among others, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.