Self-Portrait at 33. by Matthew DeMarco (he/they)

          — after David Berman

The title could work if taken as homage
or even as a forgivable, petty theft perpetrated
against the legacy of a poet who was at least
more worldly in his allusive, self-directed generosity,

and I’m hoping whoever reads or hears this
will tolerate it as a pretext for wandering into my own biome
on an afternoon when our backyard tree’s gold leaves
have fallen for the second day in a row, blanketing
the concrete apron that surrounds our home
in an almost overmuch tapestry of dried yellow mustard
and weak black pepper. I don’t know

how much you would have liked being addressed
in a poem that emulated your own,
though I can’t claim to be getting at something
I know to be simple. Like you, I will say
that I’m not too fond of pastorals, and I turn over
the same mundane specks of my earliest days
not knowing what shape to make of them in my hands:
the hot asphalt while splayed out in the sun
following an all-afternoon squirt gun fight, lapsed consciousness
when I assumed roles in papier-mâché operettas
or the occasional cardboard-cutout melodrama or farce.

The red LED hand-me-down alarm clocks are something
of a friendly specter in my memories, tokens of blaring,
abrasive adulthood.

Now, I’m fortunate enough to wake up whenever I do.
Each day holds its existence before me in an omnipresent jelly.
Leaving my bed is the first way to know I’m not frozen
in a transparent crypt. I keep reminding myself
that the world is permeable with every step I take.


In the image from Dürer, the artist is depicted
with a solemn, blank face that parts long, tight,
dark brown ringlets cascading toward their termination
in an even line shrouding the fur collar over his chest.

From Berman’s hands, this Christ-like fodder informs
the self-dubbed Silver Jew’s slow-paced artistic invention.

The earliest form of activism I recall is from the NIMBYs—
though we didn’t call them that then—who lived all around us
advocating tirelessly for the creation of a third Chicagoland airport
in the cornfields abutting some mythical-sounding land
known as Peotone. The slickly coated envelopes packed
our mailbox, ceaselessly blaring their bright-red cartoon stop signs
aimed at halting the expansion of O’Hare Airport a mere 15 miles
from our doorstep. As a child, I trusted and ignored much—like the noise
overhead. And even the first time we went flying, I can’t remember
if I knew for sure the moment we had left the world behind.

David, you depart again at least 33 times per minute
while the majestic mountains chase each other round
and round the hi-fi, concentric grooves radiating outward
from their own annihilation.

These days, when I call home, my father assures me the planes
have gotten worse with time. I don’t know what I’ll believe
once 40 more revolutions have passed me by.


I began this poem in November, and somehow
the whole Christmas season has come and gone,
ending a few short days ago with the Feast of the Epiphany,
a date now shared with the notorious insurrection
that took place at the Capitol just over a year ago.

Like you, DB, I’ve never been much of a fan of robes,
but my robeless existence owes more to a lack of planning
than an overabundance of contemplation. That’s the same reason
I don’t do most things: I just haven’t thought about it.
Kate’s birthday is coming up, and I think
I’m going to get her a soft robe in a deep purple.
I’m trying to listen, to think up good gifts again,
like I did when we first started dating.

Together, we’re reading about love. Some folks doggedly insist
on always placing an “I” in front of “love you.” To me, it seems to belabor
a trivial point. For somebody indebted to language,
I am beginning to realize I grant little credence to the interpretation
of these incidental formulations of everyday speech.
Mayakovsky said his “I” was too small for him, and I agree.
His lively corpus sprouted, indignant, from the limits of his speech.

I hope this won’t seem pompous to you, but I’ve become preoccupied with the cliffsides of diction again.


These days, if I do call somebody out of the blue, and they don’t pick up,
I typically don’t wait around long enough to find out
how they’ve set up their voicemail. Their inbox is likely full,
and it’s usually not as if what I had to say
was really any more important than them seeing that I had called in a notification on their phone.

In the face of impossible futures, I still cling to the notion, misguided,
that change is an option, revolution a fantasy. Nearly 50 years of SNL
have passed before us, and I doubt Adam Sandler
is embarrassed when he thinks back on “The Chanukah Song”
these days. The patterns of our familiar culture repeat themselves
in ever-present arrays, refracting the world as it exists, because
new formulas seem too exhausting in a world of split identities
sunk into bleak screens projecting various permutations of blue light.

When something is at once familiar
but also not, you may be able see it more clearly
for what it is or what you think it should be.
When my sister moved to a different town near the airport,
I’d sometimes drive down Braintree Drive to visit her family.
It’s a road I’d never contemplated before, but then I imagined the street
as a branching thing sprouting from some subterranean grey matter
lost and discarded in the dirt of the suburbs.

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my neural circuitry buried
in Google Maps. I guess I’m always someplace else no matter where
I am. For some reason, in the southwest corner of Peotone, all the streets
are named for birds: Mallard, Teal, Heron, Hummingbird, Oriole,
Pelican, Gull View, and Merganser.


The golden leaves of the back patio have been traded in
for white snow and milky ice. In Denver, winter slush doesn’t have time
to go gray. Orange light snakes in through the window now, as if to say,
“A self-portrait requires reflection, or at the very least, looking
at yourself deeply enough so others will recognize you.” But I’m just
a human ape in the second half of winter. At least the days are growing longer
again. I wonder if I should have spread this poem out across the whole year,
but lately I feel the need to finish something, anything.

I don’t talk much with my friends about poetry these days.
We’re up to nearly two years of plagues, and clearing a path for art
seems difficult enough to balance for myself, let alone for others
who are studying law and raising babies and planting crops
—all things it turns out people do in their thirties.
When I show them this poem, my only great hope
is that they put on a record that makes them think of our times
together: witticisms delivered with a somber drawl to a honky-tonk beat.

I’m going to take a break again and finish this another day.
There are six parts, and I’ve done five. I can rest again
before we say goodbye. What’s the harm in leaving things,
just for the moment anyway, undone?


What will I remember when I think back on these years of disease
and discomfort that you will have never seen, David? Will there one day
be a television series mythologizing the exploits of content monkeys
who craft arias for the robotic and unappeasably obtuse audience of the search bar?
I don’t know anything that hasn’t been recycled 77 times over,
each time with slightly different verbiage, occasionally wearing sunglasses
and a wide-brimmed hat.

Windows expand and contract before my nose, a galaxy of infinitely
divergent sameness. Is this too psychedelic? Our cat is on the couch,
dozing beside Kate. I saw a video about toxoplasmosis once, and maybe
you saw it too. I’ve heard somewhere that cats don’t understand their names
the same way dogs do. So someday, I could be given over to psychedelia
without a tether back to our cat, who likely wouldn’t miss hearing her name.

But when I work from home, Kate showed me how to part the drapes
so a small winter sunbeam shines in. Then, instead of the cat keeping to herself
in a similar room across the hall, she often seems to prefer to sit near me:

Self-portrait at 33.

Matthew DeMarco (he/they) lives in Denver. His work has appeared on and in Sporklet, Glass, The McNeese Review, Okay Donkey, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. His collaborations with Faizan Syed have been anthologized in They Said (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), and a collaboration with Kate Hollenbach is forthcoming in Taper. In his spare time, he edits youth poetry for a local nonprofit, and he tweets sporadically from @M_DeMarco_Words.