The Leader asserts itself above meaning and beyond mettle as a grid-like compulsion toward capital gains and the grounding of human rights to a bare minimum. The Leader leaks through transmissions to avert a seemingly natural way of humanity to be curious and have concern for their fellow beings, to protect their own. The poet, comprehending a historic vulnerability, can call this force by name and keep track of its activity as an attempt to render it powerless. Damian Rogers’s latest book manages to create this mouthpiece of naming by bending prose and surreal lines throughout her new collection Dear Leader, all while maintaining a personal tone and plainspoken delivery.
There’s an extremely poignant and obviously brilliant epigraph by Joanne Kyger to start the collection, which gives us the precise key tonality to have in mind: “Say oh Leader of the lost … the shimmer of evil oh / it grows like a snake / moves like the strongest / most beautiful dream in the world.”
Kyger’s words mix a slightly cutting tone with a clarity of rhythm and line that also seems meditative and tied to place. She proclaims the Leader with its evilness, its snake-ness, its message “beautiful” and “like a dream,” but in that “like” is nested a certain and unmistakable kind of awareness. That the Leader is not on your team and yet you live in its world.
Kyger’s method of a delivery seemingly at ease shares the concern of Rogers’s work here, and that sort of thing always develops a kind of trust in me, a trust between reader and poet. Having such a clear tone in poetry is a place to come home to. A belief. A lot of this work is Dear Leader in fact prose, except Rogers often becomes an architect of the strange and surreal just as much as she is the architect of the prose sentence – alternating between tercet, couplet, and prose block, addressing and un-addressing the self, the reader, the Leader. This book is an enterprise of interlocutions: texts between stranger and stranger. One wonders if there can be a more plausible relationship than that while reading contemporary poetry. There’s an unmistakable road-weariness at play here too (“every day I pass life’s great dramas, / the kind you’d love to hear about / as if they have nothing to do with me”), which at times gives the poems a size and shape expanding across landscapes. The poems are occasional and personal but have a visionary scope and execution. And of course there’s that knowingness, that sardonic tone as a base.
Rogers has a way of engaging us with extremely personal anecdotes and details, observations, and fragments that revolve around lived-in experience. Her poetry breaks free the places between hard image and transparent prose. Firstly, living in the Leader’s world is living with pain:
Have you talked to the doctor? The paperwork
is unfinished. You didn’t fill the forms out right.
When I interviewed Andre, he was painting a mask
from memory. When he finished, his face was green
and he wore a ceremonial cape with an elfin hood.
People are partying down the street in defiance of spring snow.
Everything you’re afraid will happen already has.
(from “Minor Regional Novel”)
We live in
of a large
and I saw it
It’s a way of expressing through mindfulness, connecting through observation. Building on a remark and lifting it out into dream. The first section of the book is mostly invested in a sort of knowing attitude about pain (and, it should be noted, often with a humorous tone. “Did you kiss the devil’s ass in the alley? Please, no more questions”).
But anecdotes and pure ecstatic mystery link together in these poems in exciting ways– especially in the prose-like poems. Dear Leader blends the occasional with the visionary in this way.
Listen to that bee sing of assisted living;
he spirits me safely down a long golden hall.
And you, dear, sent a silver chain for my neck
to help me hit the notes in the grass’s secret song
of hush. Hum that tune on your tongue,
haunt me all summer without saying a word.
It’s my right to wrap my heart in a riddle.
There is nothing between us that is not love.
(“You Cannot Shed the Difficult, Most Stubborn Aspects of Your Nature with One Dose”)
A fuse between two dimensions of reality is always loosening the stitches of where Kyger’s sardonic “place” is and is about to be. My Dear Leader has wormholes, trap doors, and passageways. I especially am drawn to how this makes the sad or depressed consciousness in these poems as having a possibly secret relationship with a higher form of reality. “I’m not sure it’s smart to unlock the portal,” Rogers writes. In this liminal place, Rogers is making caches of setting throughout the collection, nesting elements of change and resistance in the Leader’s familiar biosphere to be unearthed or revealed. This, as far as content, often revolves around bringing another human into the world and draw from one’s experience as a mother. The mother of these poems is determined not to “pass” the pain of consciousness through to their child and this heightened reality is another thing to bear, a doubling of giving birth in harsh condition. It’s a dark theme to be sure, but it holds the poet accountable to be “making” things at all in the Leader’s world and is really the core of this collection.
… My son thinks I’m perfect
when I do nothing but lie silently in a room
feeding him while I try not to dwell
on my mother’s bills so that worry won’t
pass from my nervous system to his. One
time I drank a rancid mud-thick brew
that made me see snakes in the floor tile.
I thought I was the Virgin Mary, radiant
and swaddled in borrowed white skirts
mean to shield my ovarian vibrations.
We stood up and sat down as we sang
allegedly magical phrases in Portuguese.
One guy saw light shoot out of my head.
Tonight I tune the rain. Our least-favourite
cat trapped in the worst of it. I felt
love as we rescued him from his tiny
terror. Once he was safe I lost interest.
I cried this afternoon. It’s my new thing.
(“The Warlock’s Forelock”)
It’s the mortal job of the poet to stave off death at each moment, the poet as some sort of magnetic device that attracts pain, comprehends, and seeks truth as a way of protecting itself and the people s/he cares about. “Poets in the Public Domain” is simply a list of poet deaths. Some are obvious like Wilfred Owen, “Killed in action one week before war ended” or Edgar Allan Poe, “Found delirious on the streets of Baltimore. Died days later.” What’s great is that the very next poem is for another dead poet, “Poem for Robin Blaser,” but this piece reaches hermetically toward the spiritual Blaser for some kind of talismanic strength, not for the dead poets whose work is republished and repurposed for free by generations (and whose lives are simply retold as a matter-of-fact death). “I must keep my feet on the floor / if I’m ever to achieve your speed. // You blew smoke at me and smiled. / Nothing is so easy.”
Fact is that Rogers throws everything of her life into these poems, and in that way I like it as change of pace from either extremely personal poetry or difficult conceptual work – there is a kind of searching that goes on within a work that isn’t just one direct “kind” of poem. That brings us into the gallery as far as I’m concerned, allowing space to determine what’s what. These aren’t biographical poems as much as they come into being as a matter of the biography, and could be discovered as either. There are many examples of Rogers working through various kinds of forms, traumas, and visions. The poems take turns being nested in a very present reality and others link up with higher states of mind and, at times, bizarre and humorous outer dimensions.
All of this really reaches full potential in the final fourth section, where several poems, some titled and retitled “Dear Leader,” bring forth the interdimensional and surreal prose forms I mentioned above. Each vocalizes the kind of address in that epigraph by Joanne Kyger, calling the Leader out and trying to serve as observer of various crimes against reality. “How glorious was your shining forth from the horizon / when you detonated the Two Lands with your terrible rays! / I starved till my bones shone, and your voice rang in my ear.” This is where the book’s various forms and methods are finally seen pulled into cosmological array around their gravity well and where the shiftiness between sonnet-like forms and pure prose poems reveal and hide caches of peace, understanding, and freedom within the Leader’s horrible activity.
“The Pain of Childbirth Is Nothing Compared to the Pain I Felt When You Poisoned Me” lists the gnarly effects of drugs/vices like cocaine, LSD, pot, booze, and men, utilizing remarks that feel so lived-in and biographical, “A guy I liked described acid as having every drawer and closet door inside you spring open at once,” and “men, they turn you into a vessel, rowing farther away with every stroke.” The poem then dramatically pounces at the Leader with this last line, “But the Leader, he cleans my hair with his feet.”
The labor here, not as if it is really out of step with the labor associated with child birth, is to have the presence of mind to observe and call the Leader by name, to keep the heightened consciousness going in order to keep safe places from its reign. “I saw my enemy unhinge his jaw to suck down a kitten. / Please lead me to safe paper, help me write it down right.” These last few poems hold a hell of a lot of concentrated strength in their claws – the lines are fun to read. “… Leader, your deeds are clean / as the whistles I once drew down the street. 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.” The missing article before “happy day” isn’t just a bit funny, it acts as a subtle blow: a consciousness in pain that is aware and has full bear on the extent to which the Leader will achieve strength through crises can capture through a mystery they bear on their own.