The Nineteen Steps Between Us by Darren C. Demaree
A Review by Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
In the nineteen segments of this book, Darren C. Demaree unravels, like a long rope, the ways in which one can connect to another stranger while walking through the world. In that wandering is the exploration of the speaker’s own mind and body, further delving into what holds us together in this “tunnel” of being and how we “can heap the whole // of one moment / in a single swallowing”, or, in this case, a single musing.
The twists and turns of this wandering makes takes strands of wondering and braids it into a poem of “an ecstatic place // that will never rest / inside of you” because through this rope, “we are connected to // the fumbling mess / of so many fabrics”.
The book starts out with Step One: Evaluation of My Physical Purpose: where the speaker says he “must know how // or why [he] rush[es] forward.”, and he laments that he “must / have more control // of the philosophy / of the physical” because there’s this fear of how he presents his physical body to the outside world: “how lion // [he] can be without showing [his] teeth”. And, in this willingness to take control of not only his body, but also his presentation to the world, to the stranger next to him, he realizes that:
to join any galaxy
[he] will need another
person, an orbit
to hold [him]
at a distance
that can give both […]
a reason to tilt[.]
The reader then becomes aware of the movement of the speaker, standing, perhaps, at a bus station, counting strangers and busses: “Once three busses pass // me, I will evaluate / everything again.” says the speaker, for her is “desperate / to be physically un-desperate”. As the reader, we begin to feel this sense of longing for release from such suffocation, as if our own bodies are their own containers waiting to be opened by another body. But, there’s issue here, as well, acknowledging that “We have decorated / so many flat // & semi-flat surfaces / with our poor aim // for each other.”, and how can we effectively connect, both physically and otherwise, to anyone at all. We have so many social and psychological programs built to keep others, and ourselves, out, protected—“of what bundled scars // can still be trusted / to protect.”.
After each abstract thought, the work makes efforts to ground the reader again in place, as in Part Three, where we clearly come back to the public space. The speaker says beautifully of being in public:
I hear voices mulling
in each indigo
& violet of our closeness
& every time I join
the chorus of our low
fruit I feel whole
enough to believe
in the citizenry
of right fucking now.
This urgency of the “fucking now”, perhaps in a chorus of strangers’ voices in a public space, leads us to the fourth step in the book where, again, we go back to a literal and figurative head space: “Above our head // is the thinnest skin, / begging to be // peeled back.” In placing the reader among so many voices, it’s as though the speaker wants to dip the reader in and out of the physical and spiritual. What more physical than the act of peeling back our scalps and yet, what relief for the thoughts to escape, and in that escape, becoming the air in which we escape into, needing again a body to or physical experience to bring us back? The speaker answers this with: “we must / find the fantastic // edges of each other”, and in that finding of another body, we reconnect to our own.
In Step Five, the speaker moves on to discuss the subject of sound through the assault of everyday noise, the clutter in the brain, where our “hands / are busy, idle // […]like a bird // afraid of winter’s first breeze.”, and we may miss “a declaration / of love // […] because of a car honk”. The work highlights an overwhelming wish to “move / […] in a rhythm // […] of everything bloomed / all at once”. It is a gorgeous and tragic singing toward the assault that is at once lonely and all-encompassing, much like the moment two people speak of loving one another for the first time: “you might love // the shadow of my frame / against the church door”. It is heart breaking, literally, to praise the vulnerability of traveling toward each other “by the waves // that sound / makes righteous”—breaking in a good way, a release and a sacred calling-out.
In step six, the speaker acknowledges the boundaries between two people in the different ways they see the world and themselves. How, often we build a wall around us to protect the emotional and physical body.
The speaker moves in and out of that questioning by way of asking and answering—a call and response. For example, he asks “what // makes me think I can / use my body to celebrate yours // & not invade the formula / of your happiness”, then turns that question into a response, out of the physical and into the theoretical, saying “I don’t need // to ever touch you / to make you real gospel”. The juxtaposition of physical exploration and spiritual—literally, this gospel—connection is what makes this book vibrate off the page. The reader, sitting in a crowded coffee shop or train station, can experience every one of the wandering paths and move in and out of the speaker’s intimate explorations, becoming the speaker themselves while looking at the stranger next to them reading “why would I ever / risk changing the color // of your cheeks? You / are beautiful.”, and agree, with new eyes, that yes, that stranger is, in fact, beautiful. Or, perhaps the reader feels a new appreciation for their own cheeks and thanks the speaker for presenting this idea that “Whatever // makes [them] that way / is beautiful too.”
Though the book presents the parallels of space and closeness, how we build our walls, our belief systems, there’s the repeated conclusion that “it couldn’t matter less // that you have any names / for what we’ve done.”, and this speaks back to the speaker himself, answering, again, the major question of this book–What are we doing when we pass through this world with other bodies— “in a tunnel // […] tucked in the physics // of the oval of our time” and try to leap toward being less alone. We “need only the tunnel to hold / & for you to embrace // that the escape we all want // […] it is not real.”, because, the speaker declares, “I am real. / I have written it. // You are real.”
Next, the book takes a different look at generational truths by tackling the gifts given to us by our parents and how those gifts may influence our movement among each other: “the fraying / of a father’s intentions // can be seen in the angle / forward of every moving body.”, because, we all have fathers. And each one of us “asked for the wind // & when they were not the wind / we hated them for it.”. Doesn’t this breakdown of our childhood heroes play a role in how we walk, literally and figuratively, through our world? To present this element toward the discovery of the stranger is not only brilliant, but acts as a call toward forgiveness—forgiveness for our own fathers and for how we treat each other because of them. We are continually “lighthouses on one cliff, / [and] it is our fathers that give us fire, // that part of the first people / is still real”.
And if our father, despite his flaws, is the light inside us that connect us to each other, “our mothers // have already walked / our roads […] // & threatened the bare branches / in case they become arms”, making way for a smoother transition through this world.
After the exploration of our origin—the legacy we carry from those who brought us here—the speaker presents the contract we make with our space in Step Ten. Here, the reader watches the speaker handle the play between independence and interdependence. The speaker explains how “We are/ arrows, we have an arc” and the speaker, in being an arrow “want(s) to target you // […] not because [he is] owed // a witness, but because // […] [he] want(s) to be flush // to as much citizenry / as possible.”. There is, of course, a problem with the contract of ones own space and body and the desire to have “as much citizenry / as possible”, and the reader is able to witness this resolution in the fact that the speaker says that while he would “walk // backwards / to comfort you”, he has a “bad back // & the bend required / to lower [himself] […] // would ruin [him]”, so the speaker decides to turn the narrative around on itself, as he often does, and says, “Let me begin // again. / I would be ruined for you.” Even that stanza, small as it is, sums up the very tactic that is occurring. “[A]gain. // I would be ruined for you” also means the speaker takes every questioning and turns it around and around until it is a gem that shines for the other.
Of course, no exploration of the stranger is complete without bringing up the wounds left by other strangers, and the speaker doesn’t spend too much time in this land. He goes there only long enough to say:
you are hidden
enough to feel safe
the next time
I surrender without
The book has a natural order of exploring wounds, briefly, and then loss. However, what is more interesting is the way in which the speaker sets out exploring loss. Unlike the other steps, loss has even tighter couplets, brief utterings of one or two words a line, sometimes three, but all brief enough, “lasting / one second // deeper […] // like casting / off”. There’s a pattern to how the speaker juxtaposes visceral ideas like loss, loneliness, and things of the soul, with the physicality of our bodies moving us through the world. He says, “Strong being // you are / forward, // even in slump-/ ing, you // have angels”.
Another theme that keeps repeating in this book is the idea that, though there’s an intense exploration of the physical,
[…] four hands
to make hope
we can, always
be late stars
to each person
and each person is a possibility “for one second / & that is enough // motivation” to write this long praise that acts as the “one rope / at once taut // & then gathered / together”. Because that’s what this book seems to be—the speaker wants us within “the same rope”.
Beautifully, after yards of calling out the spiritual and physical between two beings, the speaker, mirroring of Whitman, takes the time to praise his own body. But even in that praise is remembrance—and how he can use his body to remember— of the subject: “I will take my beard // & make it a root / & I will angle // the glare from / my glasses // […] to warm / the water // at your feet.”.
In the last Step of this long rope of exploration we catch a moment, though very brief, where the speaker lets us in on what perhaps motivated the creation of this celebration. It is his way of giving “it up // & I gave it up / with celebration, // pure, brief // […] like most of the best things”. The praise of the stranger, the unknown, is left perfect in its untouched contemplation. This is what makes it pure. And indeed, the speaker has given us, as readers, an opportunity to experience this brief encounter “because [he] can see / that even the shards // of a person in front of [us] / can be a pearl // in [our] own desert.” And though the encounter with the pearl of the stranger is brief, perfect, and untouched, luckily for the reader, it is preserved here in this gorgeous, well crafted, and thoughtful work.