Demas is a professor at Mount Holyoke and spends summers with her family on Cape Cod.
Many of her previous children’s books were set on Cape Cod, including “The Boy Who Was Generous with Salt,” about a young boy from Wellfleet who sails on a fishing boat as a cook; “Hurricane,” about the real Hurricane Bob that came ashore on Cape Cod; “Disappearing Island,” about Billingsgate Island in Wellfleet, and “If Ever I Return Again” which is about a young girl on a whaling vessel. Keeping that Cape connection, even the donkeys in her new book have actually been trailered to Cape Cod and spent a summer here.
The poems chronicle her days with two donkeys, First and Second, named for the order of their arrival in her life. She takes the very predictable actions of these more diminutive members of the equine family and with subtle additions of intent or observation, turns them into a microcosm of human action and reaction.
These poems are beautiful. They are accessible. And like her other work, they are tender and hopeful. Because animals seem to live so completely in the moment, they are a natural palette from which to draw emotional truth.
Demas has a strong command of language and never falters in her portraits of these furry beasts and the attention they bring to their days.
In the opening poem, “The Donkey’s First Night,” she writes about bringing the donkey home before dark on the last night of the year, and coming back to its stall after a party.
The donkey’s muzzle is soft as velvet
her teeth are large,
her dark eyes starless, moonless slits.
We are strangers.
She has given no consent
and yet I now own her life.
And she is mine for it is the coldest night of the year
between an apple’s perfect contours
and the moisture on my palm,
one year begins to call itself another.
In another poem, “The Donkey in the Ice Storm,” she uses the animal’s presence in the moment to explore her own grief locked in the past.
All this bleakness
is it any wonder
this was the season that my father got smaller and smaller
and then, after two days of dying,
Is it any wonder that I feel as if an illness
has taken over my body,
But I am, in fact, not sick at all
only with grief and this icy rain.
What does she know of grief
It was after my father’s death she came to live with us.
She never knew, has no memory of
the pads of his fingers moving along her back/ or his voice – oh, he would laugh to see me with her.
Without knowledge there is no grief.
What she misses is the dog running up and down the hill
the apple from yesterday’s dinner.
From my window now
I can watch her
her face sticking outside her shed
black nose, black lips, white, wet muzzle
great dark eyes circled by white.
Donkey blinking in the icy rain.”
As the poems unfold, the donkeys’ view of the world becomes a mirror for so many unrelated things.
Each simple poem in the book is a blessing, a captured drop of time keenly observed, a crystalline bit of life.
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