Damian Rogers. Dear Leader. (Coach House Books 2015).
The very title of Damian Rogers’s Dear Leader announces a volume of apostrophes, but to & from whom, & why? This marvelous gallimaufry of dissociated verses answers those questions, in its own way, by refusing to answer anything directly, & by addressing a wide range of listeners from an equally wide choice of ‘I’s. It’s something of a wild ride, but readers will come to trust the driver even if she shows herself to be rather culturally dangerous.
Rogers has mastered the poetic sentence, finding interesting ways to both mass & mess with them in either short or long lines, & she deploys them with a generous & sometimes harsh wit. The first 2 poems demonstrate this ability well. ‘From the Window the Alley’ begins, ‘Some days / I’m not on.’ In ‘The New Monuments,’ the ’I’ shifts with every sentence, & in the middle it announces (making only the first of many of this kind of statement), ‘I don’t want to go on forever, exactly like this, always a Damian.’ Or, as ‘The Trouble with Wormholes’ puts it, a little later, ‘It occurs to me I don’t have to be so many people.’
As you might have noticed, she has a way with titles, too. They reveal a dark sense of humour that also plays across many of the poems. Take the highly factual, but you have to guess, ‘Poets in the Public Domain,’ which simply lists the many ways a number of poets have died. Of course, she constructed the order, & the final entry, & that is a highly ingenious poetic act.
Because Rogers decided to make this 4 part collection a bit of a hodgepodge assemblage, with many different kinds of writing, she can switch tone from sardonic to sympathetic, theme from satiric to lyric, &, because she handles all the various kinds of writing she offers here with real skill, readers will, I believe, follow wherever she leads. She can offer a truly chilling yet marvelously sarcastic ‘Curse,’ which both accuses, with details, & attacks, including this fabulous line, ‘Look at your works, you asshole, and despair.’ And she can then break your heart with a poem like ’52 Notes for the Products of Conception,’ a profoundly moving fragmented narrative of a dangerous stillbirth. Within each poem, she proves a master at the quick shift, the disconcerting juxtaposition, yet she also constructs endings that instead of turning us back into the poem turns us out into mystery.
Part Four takes up the titular figure in a series of sardonic addresses from a ‘I’ trapped by the power of tyrannical language, striving to escape but always caught in the oceanic swells of Dear Leader’s spin doctoring. Of course, she’s not alone: ‘See the daughters of the screenshot / arrange their arms like / the ladies in major paintings // for an online salon.’ In the end, perhaps there is no escape, but one can try: ‘Bring me he who / would fight the Administrator and that stinking counsel of lies. / Send the Marine to protect me. Let me go forth to happy day.’
Dear Leader invites you in, but you’d better be prepared for a choppy ride. It offers much, but doesn’t give anything away.