Home > Reviews > Poetry > The fleeting nature of happiness in contemporary life: a review of “Dear Leader”

Review by Geoffrey Nilson

Dear Leader
Damian Rogers
Coach House Books, 2015

‘That feels amazing,’ said the rock’n’roll victim,
as he bled from his head. ‘Do it again.’

What can I say? I can’t wait to meet the future beasts that keep
on knocking from the other side of that big red door. (50)

What do we do with our pain? Do we hold it? Do we let it go? Do we bury it somewhere secret to be forgotten, only reanimated, zombie-like, after some failed trigger warning? Dear Leader, the second poetry collection from Detroit-born Toronto poet Damian Rogers, is alive with anguish, pairing dark humour with sharp insight on pain’s lingering affect and the fleeting nature of happiness in contemporary life.

Dear Leader is unified by a singular voice, albeit one with shifting overtones. The couplet, tercet, villanelle, and prose poem all feature, and mix easily with the sprawl of various list poems—the form that stands out the most. There is a list of drug highs, a list of lost lucky charms, a list of the causes of death of poets in the public domain, a list of curses. Not content to only present image for the reader to interpret, Rogers occasionally weaves strands of physical and emotional narrative into her list poems, nudging the reader toward the prescriptive. Rogers uses this combination of unstructured list and structured narrative—the lyric list—to powerful effect in “52 Notes for the Products of Conception,” a chronicle of miscarriage and the aftermath:

10          Doctor looks down and frowns

11           Another me stands in front of Guernica
              with you ticking inside.

12          Bless us. Now we are three.

13          This goodbye goes slow,
              bleeds for weeks.
              And then, home alone:
              a horror show.  (57)

The list is a coping mechanism, an act of record and an act of grief, the notes (re: facts/hard truths) somehow easier to accept because of their lack of context. But a narrative of pain is unavoidable:

43          In my lonely fog,
               I leave the baby gate open
               at the top of the stairs.

44           In my lonely fog,
                I become a flight of stairs.

45           It’s like it never happened.
                Except it takes so long to unhappen.  (60)

These are poems in processu, in the process of. The speaker moves toward understanding, unsure of closure even when it appears, maybe recognizing that closure itself is a myth. The past informs the future, but more importantly, it informs the understanding of the present. Conflicting emotions swell at whim, no less real in the moment of experience for all their unpredictability. Rogers’s careful, casual language swells with fear: “[e]verything you’re afraid will happen already has,” (16) and with doubt: “I’m working / this summer / on inventing / the life I am / already living.” (12)

Dear LeaderBy the eponymous sequence in the fourth section, pain is personified into “the Leader,” and the speaker “beautiful as a bruise, and alone.” (68) The sequence narrative is disjointed—part surreal science-fiction, part religious cult diary, part lyric reflection—while the diction is precise, the reader overwhelmed by the juxtaposition before realizing Rogers addresses pain directly: “Some swear you’ve arrived for your own purposes, but I sensed your / benevolence…You want me to survive.” (81)

Truth comes in Dear Leader—whether the desires of drug abuse or the existential failings of self—like clear flashes in the turbulence of living. Rogersunderstands, as David Foster Wallace wrote, “the truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” Yet, through the physical and the emotional, the speaker does the impossible: transcends pain. In a way, the speaker also transcends traditional definitions of the lyric. These poems decline a small definition of self and open up to the ocean of compassion, the ocean of we, where the narrator’s pain becomes the pain, and Dear Leader holds the injuries we all carry as human beings.

Geoffrey Nilson is a Contributing Editor with Arc Poetry Magazine. His poems and essays have appeared recently in Poetry is Dead, subTerrain, PRISM international, and The Glasgow Review of Books. He lives in New Westminster, BC, with his daughter, Scarlett, and studies writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.