Nick Demske operates with a kind of magnetic-yet-repulsive force, powerfully driven by various tensions of opposites.
Reading Nick Demske’s ferocious debut Nick Demske is a little bit like watching Rebel Without a Cause. Demske’s poetic persona, “Nick Demske,” is not unlike James Dean’s Jim Stark in that both present the spectacle of a wounded person lashing out violently, while the precise source of his wound is not directly acknowledged by him.
Again and again, Demske bursts in, Dean-esque, all desperate and over-doing it, beautifully chewing the poetic scenery, like in “Faux Hawk,” where he declares:
Night is the new day. I am violently Nick Demske, the pissy,
Second-hand trench coat of poetry. Behold my clearance discounts. I we
Ar my Nick Demske like a burkha—the lamb’s-wool codpiece, pessi
Mystic. I once wrote a death letter to a childhood pen pal. Now I write
Death letters to everyone, indiscriminate…
In real life, Nick Demske the author has acknowledged in interviews that his mother died of breast cancer when he was not quite halfway through writing the book, and that this event was “a big inspiration.” Meanwhile, although he does utter lines that suggest such a tragedy—“We’re sorry the deductible/ Doesn’t match the co-pay. We’re sorry, your son’s unstable,” and “Your/Greatest achievement in life has been disappointing your/Parents, even to this day, which scholars agree is impressive since//Your mother died Weeks ago,” for instance—“Nick Demske,” never overtly confesses or meditates at length upon what’s making him act out. As if to mention this refusal without really mentioning it, he even ends one poem “All’s I’m trying to say is [section omitted]. “
As a result, like Jim Stark, “Nick Demske” is at least as attractive and compelling as he is repellent and scary. Unlike Jim Stark, though—at least in terms of intentionality (for an audience isn’t going to laugh with Jim Stark so much as at him)—Demske is deliberately, hilariously, scatologically funny.
The collection operates with a kind of magnetic-yet-repulsive force, powerfully driven by various tensions of opposites. Every piece but one is a sonnet, all with fourteen lines and all with rhyme schemes, but lacking any set meter or line length, and often lacking any clear or typically placed volta. Demske’s sonnets are more like John Berryman’s than William Shakespeare’s, and in the book’s first poem, “Harlem Tectonica,” he includes an epigraph from “Dream Song 14”: “me, wag.” The sonnet itself lays out what’s in store for the next 80 or so pages, asking,
…Why won’t you stop crying, paintmixer, cry
Ing tambourine tremors through the fault
Lines, through submachine hands barely legal enough to fuck I finger fuck this light
Socket like a paintmixer bimbo asthenic with chortledom Why
and revealing that, while a sonnet is historically a love poem, Demske’s sonnets will be on hateful and inappropriate things, thus pitting each piece’s content against its form.
The entire book embodies the concept “so-bad-it’s-good,” and the intrinsic conflict of that attitude is heightened because of the repetition-compulsion that occurs across each section. “The key to brainwashing is repetition,” he writes in “Psyche 101.” “The key/Did you expect me to repeat that now? Did you expect me to /Enact the experience you think I describe?” The reader gets the sense that this repetition of “offensive” material is happening as part of an inescapable process of grieving—“Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through,” as Freud put it—and that the subject of this grief cannot be looked at full-on. Thus does Demske deal with it metaphorically, like in “As a Dog Returneth To His Vomit,” in which he writes, ridiculous yet forlorn: “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. I stuck a needle/In my eye and all I got was this lousy needle./In my eye.”
By virtue of this intentional courting of badness in many forms, practically every flavor of poor taste is not merely offered but feasted upon: child abuse in “Common Sense” when he writes “I beat these children like the deadest of horsies”; unapologetic self-aggrandizement in the same poem:“I will make me beautiful if it takes // Uglifying everything else”; the mentally disabled in “Words Will Never” when he writes “Not only are you deaf, but you sound retarded/When you talk” (which he then goes on to rhyme with “sharted”); religion in “And the Symbol of His Covenant Shall Decorate Our Shields” when he writes “God is a virgin,/Which explains a lot. God is a Christian,/Initiating full-blown AIDS like foreplay”; archaic diction in “Put Your Face in My Tongue” when he writes “Verily/Yea, I saith unto thee: a meadow of summer/Fruit, a damsel with a dulcimer”; and even Holocaust denial in “As Far Away” when he writes “The Holocaust never existed. What are you going to do/About it? The Holocaust never happened.” Also covered? Abortion, racism, stool samples, objectification, dead babies, rape, jihad, lesbians, Dr. Kevorkian, orgies, the Virginia Tech shootings, and much, much more.
Yet all these self-consciously sexual references and manly boasts are designed to be “offensive” in the way, say, Walt Whitman was offensive; they are jarring and passionate and weird, and they force the reader to see something new.
Demske’s poems are also a bit like the songs of Bo Diddley, or pretty much any rapper, where the artist’s very name becomes a magic word or refrain. In a sonnet “after Paul Ruebens” called “Whether My Head or This Wall Will Be First to Surrender,” Demske begins,
They don’t have a name for what I am.
Age appropriate sex symbol Cup full of athlete,
Spilling. Huffing mouth-to-mouth at a carrion
Heap, petting these bunnies to pieces. Day breaks like a he
Art in your hands, Nick Demske. You stammer
before ending, “Recklessness. Renaissance. Nicholas You give new meaning to the word.”
Here, and throughout, what Demske seems to be doing is enlisting poetry’s capacity to order, arrange, and focus—hence the sonnet forms—while fiercely resisting its tendency to console, explain, and sentimentalize, in order to preserve and cultivate the grief in which these poems have their origin. These sonnets intentionally repel the reader’s sympathy by being offensive and outrageous while attracting attention through their controlled linguistic virtuosity.
Nick Demske, then, is a profoundly adolescent book—comic and awkward, brash and vulnerable. But the point to make, of course, in addition to that one is that the book’s adolescence is commendable, in that it is awake to unmediated experience and alive to its own pain, which it would not see lessened.
In this posture of the angry, grieving young person Demske resembles Kanye West, another self-styled man-child who simultaneously resists and welcomes people’s low opinions of him: “Remind me what it’s like to be offended, Nick Demske,” says Nick Demske . “Everybody know I’m a muthafucking monster,” says Kanye West.
In this sense Demske might also remind the reader of the (older, male) Quentin in The Sound & the Fury, who kills himself in order to stop the inevitable dulling of his emotions that time will bring. But unlike Quentin, “Nick Demske” keeps living, and he sort of says why in the most clearly “sincere” poem in the book, the very last one, which ends:
…I could’ve killed
Myself that night, but instead I plucked these shards from my flesh, licked
The lacerations. Fashioned this glowing mosaic.
And though it is also one of the funniest, that choice is what makes this one of the saddest and bravest books to come along in a while.