November Read of the Month: “Weary Kingdom,” by DéLana R. A. Dameron

DéLana R. A. Dameron

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

We have moved from Michigan to South Carolina, which is not unlike a sailing ship lifting anchor. If I read DéLana R. A. Dameron’s Weary Kingdom properly, there’s some similarity, a movement from the familiarity of a home in South Carolina to a different world, Harlem and Brooklyn, where she currently works as an arts and culture administrator.

There are two points to be made here. One is to reconsider the Harlem Renaissance as a blossoming of African American culture, that remarkable concentration of intellect and talent. For Dameron to make that move from home in the South to Harlem is to suggest a move toward a fertile place for cultural experimentation, if not personal examination.

Second is the book’s title, Weary Kingdom, a controlling metaphor drawn from Emerson: “So when the soul of the poet has come to ripeness of thought, she detaches and sends away from it its poems or songs,—a fearless sleepless, deathless progeny, which is not exposed to the accidents of the weary kingdom of time.” The two contribute to the poet’s appraisal of her new circumstances, and the observant spots of time that make up the book’s collection.

Ironically, in many respects the Harlem Renaissance “landscape” has become barren, weary. It’s home, but it’s not “magnolia & dogwood” (“The Perch”). In “Nocturnes,” the second poem in the collection, the poet asks her reader to listen to the sounds swirling “between buildings / like prevailing winds . . . pigeons murmuring their words.” It’s a long poem in six parts, the essence of which is “weariness.” What was once the home of a renaissance is now culturally vacant, with the exception of a man who “stumbles to the steps of a church / & takes a knee. A brown-papered beverage to his left, a crumpled pack of cigarettes to his right . . . the streets move against / this man’s stillness . . . We walk on, /further into the night.”

The poems are haunting, largely because of the rift between the poet and Harlem’s history, which has become theatrically disheveled. Her sensibility butts against this city, loving what it was and loathing what it has become. What she inhabits instead is a room which may have a view of the Hudson; rather than certainty, she has confusion and tries “to figure out how / everything turned / so foreign so quickly” (“Hudson View”). The rupture is deep, of course, complicated again by what she recalls from her southern life, her “grand-father’s / work shed . . . covered in kudzu.” If she were still there she would cut back “the years of leaves, would let / the light back into the windows, would save the wood planks / nailed together by his hands from rot.” But she is not in South Carolina; she’s in her “Harlem bathroom / taking scissors to [her] locks, exposing / [her] neck & torso. Now [she is] all neck / & stretch marks crosshatching [her] collarbones” (“Shorn”).

Emerson wrote that genius “is the activity which repairs the decay of things,” which would include rehabilitating time’s weary kingdom. One presumes, then, that for the genius of the poet to make beautiful melodies that “ascend and leap and pierce into the deeps of infinite time,” what is painted on the retina of the eye must own something like a promise. In “Road Mart on St. Nicholas Avenue,” the poet remarks in a prose poem that in this Harlem, in this “American Life” the “dread-locked man” wants to sell his some-things, “a burned out microwave, unpaired shoes of various sizes & styles, a blanket, a bowl several emptied bottles of beer.” She, too, has her commodities, which are “miscellaneous pairings of words on a page, attempting the make the unsayable some worthy commodity.”

Given, then, the weary kingdom of Harlem and the poet’s own concentration of intellect and talent, what’s to be done? Survival, for one. But that would depend upon what the poet is burning to believe, that supreme question, that supreme fiction so philosophically central to Wallace Stevens.

“What Life Were We Expecting” inhabits a third space in Part III of Dameron’s Weary Kingdom, “Pomegranate Sky.” It’s a poem “after Philip Levine.” The first lines take aim:

The moon may falter
its charted course around;
the sun may snap its leash
& say I’m done. A day
will come, lift itself
from slumber at the call
of trumpets & we’ll all spin
into the final pyre
all spin our way into oblivion.

Surely there’s something awry here or disturbed or even apocalyptic in these lines. More so when the poem argues “No one / will be left to offer directions / —when our breaths become / one long exhale, when / our extinguished selves / hover a middle earth, & bodies / burn on without us. / & what is grace or mercy / but a single flare in the distance?”

Poets, however, should manage to find a way out of their self-defensiveness, never to remained stalled as if in an underwater cavern running out of air. The sense, though, in the remaining poems in Weary Kingdom is “suspension.” The poems are good to read but taken as a collection, one-by-one, they are like the final two lines in “Communion”: “dregs left to dry / in the bottom of the cup.” And dried dregs surely fail to change or save, convict, convert, absolve, or deliver the self from that weary kingdom of time.

In his Ambition and Survival, Christian Wiman makes this poignant note: “If self-preservation is the motive force behind the work of many young poets, perhaps developing beyond this involves an effort to preserve something besides the self, giving oneself over to something outside of oneself.” Time will tell in that weary kingdom whether Dameron’s poems will reach that sense of rightness and wholeness, what Emerson calls “ripeness of thought.”

Weary Kingdom is Dameron’s second poetry collection. How God Ends Us, her first book, was awarded the 2008 Carolina Poetry Book Prize.

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