Poet Darren Demaree walks alongside his children

In ‘A Child Walks in the Dark,’ the Columbus writer and father of three explores the playful, pensive experiences that define those formative years

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Darren Demaree

When more than four years ago Darren Demaree started work on the poems compiled in A Child Walks in the Dark (Small Harbor Publishing), released in early December, the world around him felt bleak.

At the time, Donald Trump had recently been sworn in as president, and Demaree was in the midst of promoting Two Towns Over, a collection heavily steeped in themes related to the Ohio opioid crisis and addiction. Feeling the weight of the moment, the poet started to experiment with pieces centered on his children, enabling him to focus on something that sparked needed joy.

“It helped me to be writing things directly for the children, and with them in mind,” Demaree said by phone. “I know the poems in the book [cover] serious topics in an all-too-serious time, but I found a way to enjoy writing them because it was full of love, and it was a playful thing. I can’t write about any topic that involves my children and not have it end up playful. … For me, the project that came next, if it was going to be worth anything at all, it had to be something where I was searching for hope, searching for dynamism, really. It had to give me a reason to teach my children hope.”

Each poem in A Child Walks in the Dark begins with a similar address, Demaree writing: “I told my children…”; “I told my son…”; “I told my daughter…”

From there, the pieces take all manner of course, veering from playful missives on the wild inhibitions specific to childhood (“There Is Enough Youth”) to more serious turns centered on body autonomy and female empowerment (“Her Body”).

Initially, Demaree started each poem with the same four words (“I told my children"), quickly branching off into works that addressed each child individually (now a father of three, these poems were written when Demaree only had two children), which enabled him to focus on some of the gender-specific topics that circulated more heavily amid the rise of Trump and the birth of the #MeToo movement, including but not limited to toxic masculinity, feminism, reproductive rights and outdated gender roles.

Throughout, these uniquely human issues are frequently countered with images of beauty and wildness tied to the natural world, Demaree making reference to crops, storm systems, birds and flowers, which he traced to a childhood growing up in rural Mount Vernon and that he leaned into as a means of capturing the majesty and unpredictability of youth. “It always feels like there are more possibilities for children in that sort of [natural] environment,” he said.

It's a sense of freedom that carries over into the structure of the poems, which abandon punctuation and are moved forward by the sound and momentum of the assembled consonants. “So, in these poems, even if some of them are full of action, or full of danger, the music of the poem, I hope, helps move it forward,” Demaree said. “That was one of the reasons I kept punctuation out. … Without the punctuation, I could do so much more with the sound of the work. The goal was to keep that live mind and heart in each poem.”

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Though centered on his own children and their early experiences in awakening to the world, aspects of the poet’s own biography bleed through, including his past struggles with alcohol addiction, Demaree writing: “ hell i was a whiskey bottle for twelve years you should have seen how drunk i was able to stay with a full liter of canadian club in my person”; “please know it was your face i saw recurring when i was in rehab.”

“As their father, I do not feel like I’m a bad person, but if I’m telling them the story of my life, there are some occasions where I’ve done bad things, and that has to be part of the narrative, as well,” said Demaree, who has been sober for almost 10 years. “I quit drinking [when our oldest child] was 1 year old, and that played a very direct role in me getting and staying sober. So, sometimes when you’re working on an artistic piece, working on a poem, there are those direct arrows you can’t avoid. Even if you’re trying to be playful and put things in these little vignettes that feel bigger than reality, sometimes you can’t stop yourself from those little truth arrows that come through in exactly the way you would want to say it to them.”

Demaree wrote this batch of poems when his two oldest children were 8 and 5, respectively, and the pieces were conceived with the awareness that both might confront these works years down the road, and perhaps even after Demaree himself has departed the Earth, an idea that flowers most clearly in the collection-ending “You Might Choose to Read These Poems.” 

Demaree writes:

i told my children you might choose to read these poems in the bareness and anxiety of your young adulthood while you search for me in the thousands and thousands of poems I have written so that i could explore so that i could explain so that i could hide and lie about some small terribleness and it gives me endless joy that you will find me here right here right now as bare as you are but feeling no anxiety at all because i am with my children in some small way in the future when i love you even more than i already do because that’s how real love works it grows with the epic it encircles the epic until you cannot tell why or how any of this began but you know you know you know that if there is such a thing as a soul it exists to be buoyed by moments like this

“In that poem I’m discussing why I wrote the book, and why I write poetry in general, and none of it being truly altruistic,” Demaree said. “Some of it is dealing with my own issues while I’m also thinking about theirs, and granting them permission to go exploring, and to find me there whenever they choose to find me. It could just be that they’re in college and they go, ‘Man, Dad wrote some pretty shitty poems.’ I don’t know. And I probably won’t be with them. They’re going to do that exploring without me in the room. … To end the book talking about love growing, and the epic encircling love, and how, if a soul exists, it would be buoyed in a moment like this ... that was definitely me trying to pull them closer.”