The dedication to Darren C. Demaree’s latest poetry collection, a child walks in the dark, reads simply, “For my family – ” and family, particularly fatherhood, is woven into every single poem in the book. Each work is a retelling of something Demaree’s speaker tells his children, whether his daughter, his son, or both at the same time. It would be easy to resort to vague lessons or aphorisms, but the speaker brings a moving vulnerability to every message, and turns those fragments of parenthood over to the reader.
Every poem is written in the same style of stream-of-consciousness free verse, without any punctuation or capitalization. While it might have been interesting to see more experimentation in their structure, this format allows for this collection to ground itself in open, honest love. Reading this collection in the context of COVID-19 reminded me of how disorienting lockdowns and safety measures must have been for young children, and the toll that such rapid changes must take on them still. Beyond just the pandemic, Demaree’s speaker sees the downsides of the world that his children will have to live in, from gender dynamics to acts of violence, and poignantly expresses the impossible task of preparing them for these futures, while wishing they did not have to endure the worst.
The speaker notably envisions different futures for his children, and shapes his lessons for them around their identities. This is particularly visible in a pair of identically titled poems, “if you ever find yourself part of the landscape,” one written for the speaker’s daughter and the second for his son. The premise is the same, but the messages he passes along differ. He encourages his daughter to resist the oppression he’s aware she will have to face due to her gender, telling her to “…run / run run run run or stay and burn that painting down to the frame / landscapes always treat women like livestock.” Meanwhile, he balances uplifting his son’s voice with gentleness: “you / should make a home there generate a little narrative you can wrap your / world around there skate swim sing long to be crop… / shout to echo.”
Another compelling aspect of the speaker is his awareness that it is more important to make himself accessible to his children, than it is for him to have all the right answers. He weaves in his own story of overcoming addiction and allows the very presence of his children to help him, writing “all of the costumes you want to wear are fine with me…. hell i was a whiskey bottle for twelve years…son i think i like your way better…” In pre-emptively comforting his daughter about her appearance, he tells her “…please know it was your face i / saw recurring when i was in rehab please know you are beautiful / enough for me to be the opposite of the person i was born to be.” The focus never leaves his children; this is not a speaker unloading his grievances onto the next generation, but instead a father making himself reachable.
It might be hard to imagine a child reader taking much away from the abstract pieces in a child walks in the dark, but another gift that Demaree gives his children is time for them to grow up and come back to this moment when they’re ready. In fact, as the final poem “you might choose to read these poems” suggests, perhaps they won’t return at all. But if they do, Demaree is leaving himself as he is for them to find, writing of a “future when i / love you even more than I already do.” This promise of love and acceptance for his children, both as they are now and as they one day will be, can be found throughout the book and makes a child walks in the dark warm, hopeful, and ultimately powerful.
Acta Victoriana would like to extend thanks to the publisher, Harbor Editions, for the review copy.