Review of Darren Demaree’s “Bombing The Thinker”
by Julia Beach Anderson
Guided by my first inspiration I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated on a rock, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, he is a creator.
– Auguste Rodin
In front of the Cleveland Museum of Art, resting in a courtyard for over a century as though spellbound by a mystical power, is a man carrying the weight of the world inside his mind. His expression never changes and though naked, the upper half of his body remains an ideal reflection of the philosopher poet: shoulders broad as winter, muscles thick with resistance, and a profile to rival Dante.
Yet, unlike Dante, who passed through the gates of the Inferno and descended on foot with Virgil through the circles of Hell, this man can not walk. If granted a miracle by his creator and given the ability to move his muscles, he would find his “shrapnel” legs unable to make the journey after being damaged by a blast of dynamite tied to his pedestal on March 24, 1970. He is The Thinker. To his creator, Auguste Rodin, he was known as The Poet. In Darren Demaree’s new collection of poems, “Bombing the Thinker,” he is the central metaphor: a damaged thinker around which violence, both contained and unleashed, transforms the landscape.
Leonard Bernstein once wrote that our reply to violence would be “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” It’s a statement I thought of frequently while reading “Bombing The Thinker,” not only because so much of the collection interrogates the transformative nature of violence, but because the act of writing poetry is, itself, a violent act. As poet Josh Bell said in an interview with Washington Square Review, “when you break the line, you control all space and time.” That’s heady stuff and there is no better place in which that kind of power could rest than in the hands of poet Darren Demaree.
In the poem “Blown Up By Radical Protestors” he writes,
How much salvation
could they dislodge
with their bomb placed
between The Thinker’s
legs? This was dark
times they wanted filled
with light? He lost legs
& would have seen his
penis dart down the stairs
While it seems redundant to blow the legs off a man who is condemned to sit for eternity, it is the simplicity of the act that renders it spectacular. The Thinker, in his solemn repose, appears both unaffected and overly burdened by his surroundings. As a statue he is immune to the post-Vietnam, Cold War chaos that sent shockwaves through American culture on the nightly news, but as The Thinker he is cast in the role of symbol and gatekeeper of the ruling class comfortably resting behind the locked gates of their privilege where money ensured their children would not return from combat with broken bodies. As Demaree notes, it isn’t satisfaction the statue’s bombers sought, it was salvation, literal preservation from ruin. Here, salvation is a thing to be “dislodged” from the space between the legs of the statue and the pedestal he rests upon, between the thing that is admired and the structure that elevates it. It is not only the blast of dynamite, but also the spark of separation that illuminates the darkness of our predicament. It is a theme that Demaree returns to throughout the collection.
In what is the most tender poem in the collection, “A Damaged Thinker #40,” Demaree imagines an alternate universe in which the now Damaged Thinker has the ability to chart his own course and follow his own desire. Demaree imagines that he “would simply leave” if he were capable and reject his role as “a landscape / for the Ohio academics” who discuss and debate his worth. In a world full of sculptures, there are a limited number of Rodins and among that circle, there are a limited number of Thinkers. Yet among all the casts of The Thinker, there is only one who has become The Damaged Thinker. The act of violence that renders him immovable, less perfect is the same act of violence that gives him permission to have an identity apart from all the other Thinkers who exist in multiplicity and sameness. It is our “perfectly flawed” Damaged Thinker who rests in Cleveland and dreams of going “back / to Europe for a while” so that he can find his missing counterpart:
I would go back
to Europe, for a while,
maybe find a Greek
with both of her arms
gone, lost to time
& looters, we could
try not to lose too much
skin as we rested against
There is a restlessness and a longing inhabiting both the voice of The Damaged Thinker and the form of Demaree’s tercets, a constant desire to push forward, follow desire, and defeat expectation. It is not the state of being whole or perfect that The Damaged Thinker desires; it is the desire to be connected to the other fragments of his origin, other versions of amputated beauty, that drive him forward. It is a desire also reflected in Demaree’s syntax and arrangement of poems within the collection. In the image of the two fragmented statues resting together, recovering the intimacy of touch after a trauma, we see the echo from “There Was Still A Pedestal,” in which Demaree notes that Cleveland was city that never “needed to own art, but did / because art is always pulling // close to other art, creating a home.”
In “The Last Option of Mounting the Sculpture In Its Damaged State Also Had Significant Ethical Implications” Demaree brings us to a truth we often try to avoid: once we “have the pedestal / in place it’s tough to give up / the statue.” In many ways, it is this poem where Demaree distills the essence of the conflict surrounding The Thinker, his bombing, and the interconnected problem of nostalgia, legacy, and violence in America. What we choose to admire – whether it is a sculpture, a person, or a poem – is often caught in an endless cycle of elevation and destruction – vision and revision – but our desire to elevate and destroy appears to be, like the pedestal itself, a permanent fixture in our world.
One of the things I admire most in this collection is the precise arrangement of poems within the book. Most of the poems in the collection could fall into one of three categories: monologues from The Damaged Thinker, letters written to Auguste Rodin, and poems written in the voice of witness. Braided together, these voices create a narrative that simulates not only a timeline of events, but also a conversation about violence, loss, and the trauma-induced cultural amnesia that sometimes renders us incapable of fully embracing the purpose of art.
Poet Frank O’Hara once said that statues “present a total attention and they are telling you that that is the way to be.” The poems in this collection are indeed at total attention, completely present with their warning: when empathy is not enough, direct experience has to be. It’s what the activists who damaged The Thinker got wrong; it’s what Demaree gets right. No voice is ever abandoned; no fragment ever completed. It is this unmatched openness toward voice and toward the line that makes the collection of poems found in “Bombing The Thinker” so incredibly rare. As Demaree writes “We learned then that / even if you whisper / the conclusion, it doesn’t actually / end anything.”