By: DéLana R. A. Dameron
Reviewed by: M. Dickson Blackburn
University of South Carolina Press, 2009
DéLana R. A. Dameron has written a terrific book in the original sense of the word. How God Ends Us is an exploration through poetry of those terrifying and terrific aspects of life that may cause one to tremble, whether in fear, in beauty, or in love. While God is often present throughout the book, the collection is not simply a celebration of the God that Dameron proposes ends life so much as a searching meditation on the ways of ending and the nature of the human condition and mind as endings emerge into view.
If, as some psychologists propose, our beliefs define us and our human dispositions, so language and the words we choose must also shape our shifting selves. In this debut collection, published as the recipient of the South Carolina Poetry Book Award, Dameron reveals herself to be a person who believes in God and also in the transcendent power of language, both of which she revels in refining, crafting, imploring, and exploring.
How God Ends Us is presented in three sections, beginning with a series of fifteen poems which often focus on the death or dying of a close family member. The diction is sometimes flavored by colloquial grammar and syntax but never in an overbearing or dramatically unnecessary way. One can almost hear the words spoken out loud in a poem like “On Seeking the Other 2/5ths Up North.” The poem begins, “First thing you do when you find free” and concludes, “Your proof you made it out those fields.” Here are the words as a nineteenth-century freedwoman may have spoken them, written by the pen of a twenty-first-century woman who is not defined by her race, her grammar, or her gender—a poet who moves smoothly through language choosing the cadences, the syntax, and the diction that best suits the poem and the speaker at hand.
In the poem “Lament,” Dameron addresses God directly and takes an almost accusatory tone. “Lament” begins, “Oh how you end us. / The beginning of disaster is the moist inside of a lie.” The recurring words us, disaster, smoke, inhabit, spaces, and words reverberate throughout the six stanzas of this modified sestina, reminding the reader that both God and language are held accountable for the smoky disasters that permeate life. In these opening lines Dameron draws a clear if contorted portrait of a God who can be found and framed, if only briefly, inside the language of a poem.
Among the many poignant poems of this collection is “Backseat Savior,” a narrative reflection involving a child’s power over death and circumstance, a rare moment in which a child is god-like. The poem, which describes an overnight car journey, reveals an Electra-like love between a father and daughter and a mother who suspects her daughter of wishing her dead. Only the child-speaker described in the poem as “seated on the blue-carpeted hump / of Daddy’s white Lincoln, legs straddling / the tongue of the white console” is awake throughout the ride to prevent the full car of family passengers from careening off the road or into oncoming traffic. Despite a few unnecessary explanations that slow the poem’s drive, “Backseat Savior” is a marvelous exploration of one human being’s relationship to her family and to death. The poem concludes, “I found that I didn’t want death / for anyone. I wanted my bed, a bed for my father. / Mostly I wanted daylight to come.”
One detail that emerges throughout all the poems in How God Ends Us is Dameron’s love of the people that fill her life: children encountered on missionary trips, family members, lovers, friends, and the poets who blazed the path before her, from Rita Dove to Forrest Hamer.
The poem “The Body as a House” acknowledges Hamer’s influence and serves as a parting statement placed near the end of the collection. The poem seems to acknowledge and accept the limitations of God, of the body, of the spirit, and of life. The final stanza reads, “Say the body is imperfect and love it still. / The body is, in fact, imperfect, but / say you love it, as I do.”
Délana R. A. Dameron’s debut, How God Ends Us, can be read as a poetic quarrel with God and with the inevitable imperfections of the human body and the human soul. In the hands of this lovely and acclaimed new voice, the quarrel is one between lovers who find themselves speaking the same language after all. April 2010
M. Dickson Blackburn is a visual artist, poet, mother, MFA Candidate at Converse College, and a marketing executive who lives in Auburn, Ala.