Poet Corinne Demas: Inspired by Donkeys ...
This article ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, January 13, 2010.
By Suzanne Wilson
Corinne Demas of Amherst has written many short stories, a shelf full of children's books, a memoir and two novels, with a third coming soon. Her books over the years have explored big themes - family, home, growing up, love and loss and joy. Her talents have brought her awards and recognition. She is a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley and a fiction editor at the Massachusetts Review.
Comes now her first collection of published poems and it is about donkeys. Not just about donkeys, of course, but there they are, pictured on the front cover below the title of this slim, elegantly produced chapbook: "The Donkeys Postpone Gratification."
Donkeys? Why donkeys?
To find out, I visited Demas at home. From the desk in her study, Demas faces tall windows that look out at a large, fenced-in area and a couple of sheds. Hoping to catch sight of the miniature donkeys she keeps there, I looked off into the distance - before realizing that one of them was right on the other side of the glass, her soft muzzle barely a few inches away. Donkeys, as I would learn later, are social, inquisitive creatures who like to keep tabs on what's going on.
When she is writing, Demas says, the sight of the donkeys outside helps keep her connected to nature, the rhythm of the seasons. When she watches them doing what they do - dozing in the sun, say, or nibbling hay - she is apt to jot down an image, or a thought that might become a poem later on. Caring for the donkeys is an integral part of Demas' daily routine. She hauls the hay, cleans the shed, brushes their coats. In frigid weather, worried that they are cold, she's been known to prepare a warmer spot for them in the garage - somewhat, she says with a laugh, to her husband's chagrin. A vet remarked once, she says, that if he were ever reincarnated, there would be few better fates than to come back as a donkey owned by Corinne Demas.
The story of why she owns donkeys goes back to her growing-up years in an apartment building in Manhattan.
"I wanted a dog intensely and consistently for my entire childhood," she wrote in her memoir, "Eleven Stories High: Growing Up in Stuyvesant Town, 1948-1968." But with canines banned from the building, Demas had to content herself with Eggbert, the salamander, and Albert Einstein, her parakeet.
Twelve years ago, having become a dog owner and settled into rural life as a college teacher in western Massachusetts, Demas still had that fascination with creatures no apartment could contain. One day, when she and her husband were driving through Conway on their way to a glassblower's studio, Demas spotted a roadside sign advertising donkeys and goats for sale. In short order, Demas was bringing Eleni, then a foal about the size of a Great Dane, home to Amherst in the back of a station wagon. Eleni was later joined by Sophie, now 8.
Eleni is indifferent to Sophie, Demas says, and seems perfectly willing to enforce the pecking order that comes with being bigger and older. Sophie, though, is miserable when she's not near Eleni. Demas is certain of that. If Eleni leaves their shed even for a minute and the door shuts behind her, leaving Sophie alone, Sophie becomes agitated and brays. "Sophie is sweet," says Demas, "but perhaps not so bright."
Beasts of Burden
In her poems, Demas refers to Eleni and Sophie as First and Second. In part of "Second Donkey," she writes of the dynamic between the two. Sophie's arrival, she says, allowed Eleni to see, for the first time, her own donkeyness reflected.
"First, who didn't know until this time
what she was
a person? dog?
She does not like this Second donkey
who takes up half her stable
who drinks water from her pail
but at last she knows
exactly what she is."
Though donkeys have been used as beasts of burden for centuries, and still are in some parts of the world, Eleni and Sophie lead cushy lives. They may, for openers, be the only donkeys in the United States who summer on Cape Cod, where Demas and her family have a home. They don't really do much of anything, Demas cheerfully concedes. But when she takes them out for walks on their halters, people love to stop and pet them and snap their pictures. Once, when a man told her that he could sometimes hear her donkeys braying, Demas braced herself for a complaint. But the sound brought back wonderful memories, he said, of his childhood in a small Italian village.
"I'm sure they have a sense of humor," Demas said of her pets. How else to explain the time that Eleni snatched Demas' glove out of her jacket pocket, and then, with the glove clamped firmly between her big teeth, proceeded to wave it back and forth, just out of Demas' reach? Or the time that Eleni nudged the door of the hay shed shut while Demas was working inside and flicked the latch? It took awhile, but Demas extricated herself, using an old broomstick that she poked outside the window to reach the latch. And there was Eleni, she said, looking very pleased.
Donkeys remember. As soon as the farrier comes to trim their hooves, they get balky, Demas says. And yes, they can be as stubborn as a toddler. Faced with a small bridge to walk over, a donkey won't just charge ahead, she says. No, it will pause, wary about the proposed crossing. It's as if it's wondering, she says, whether that bridge is really strong enough or weighing the pros and cons of crossing it. "Do I really want to be on the other side? You know what? Maybe I won't."
Demas has observed her donkeys as they've watched a dog chasing a ball and bringing it back - over and over again. The donkeys seemed deeply unimpressed by the canine performance, she says, as if asking, what's the point?
In "The Donkeys Watch the Dog Playing Fetch," she writes:
"The donkeys stand under the white pine tree,
rub their rumps against a fallen branch.
They would fetch nothing
no matter how I ask
and whatever they secure between their teeth
a rhododendron leaf, my misplaced glove
they never return willingly."
In other poems, the donkeys lead Demas, at least figuratively, to reflect on her own life. In "The Donkey's First Night," a moment in the donkey shed as she brings the donkey an apple to munch on New Year's Eve prompts her to think about the twists and turns in her own life. She thinks of New Years past, when she was dressed in a long velvet skirt and high heels, and of the present when she is sitting on a bale of straw: "What brought me here to this place?"
In another, "The Donkey in the Ice Storm," Demas and one of the donkeys take refuge in the shed during a bleak winter storm. The time there gives Demas a chance to reflect on her father's illness and death and the grief she feels. And in "The Donkeys Sense the Sea," inspired by a Cape Cod vacation, Demas considers the animals' lives inside their paddock, unable to see the ocean but knowing, somehow, that something is there. In the following lines she says:
"Always the unimagined lies
But the donkeys know it lies
within as well
The split rail fence
both boundary and inspiration.
All our lives there's something we're denied.
We'll die, as all before us
leaving something out of sight
leaving a world unexplored."
Leslea Newman, a writer who recently completed a stint as Northampton's poet laureate, says the stillness and depth of Demas' donkey poems draw the reader in. There's something comforting about Demas' words and about her donkeys' silent, rooted, dependable presence, Newman says. "It takes me back to a quiet place within myself. A lot of her work is quiet, and I find that extremely powerful. It's impossible to rush through it and that's a rare pleasure these days."
Demas has dedicated her collection of poems to Zane Kotker and Jane Yolen and to the memory of David Stemple. Kotker and Yolen are both longtime friends of Demas and are both well-known writers who live in this area. David Stemple, who died of cancer in 2006, was a professor of computer science who was married to Yolen.
In the fall of 2005, Stemple decided that one of the things he wanted to do with whatever time he had left was write poetry. That wish led to what became a Wednesday gathering each week at the Stemple-Yolen home. Demas, Kotker and Stemple would bring poems they'd written or were working on and would share them with each other.
"It was an extraordinary experience for me," Demas recalled, one that brought the three very close and that continued up until the day of Stemple's death. After he died, the group continued meeting, with Yolen taking her husband's place. In the spring of 2007, says Demas, the three decided to send some of their poems out for possible publication. Demas contacted the Finishing Line Press, a small outfit based in Georgetown, Ky., where an editor responded that the press would like to publish the donkey poems.
Though she considers herself primarily a short story writer, Demas says poetry has allowed her to explore another form of writing. A poem captures an image, an observation, she says, without the constraints of character and plot development. "It was a really lovely respite," she said.
"The Donkeys Postpone Gratification" is available at Amherst Books, the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley and Broadside Books in Northampton.
Suzanne Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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