In Santa Barbara I got to sit on my resort room’s balcony, shirtless, in the sun, with Ms. Denise Duhamel. Er, her latest book, that is. Two By Two is a sort of uneven collection for me, but I think there are several really arresting gems in the work.
The collection opens with Duhamel doing her vintage Denise Duhamel stuff—kvetching about the absurdity of the world vis-a-vis America: she laments in a snarkily incisive poem that the majority of Americans believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s (of that Ark) wife and considers “The Problem with Woody Allen.” Duhamel’s work is often narrowly contemporary but at times provides a really sharp critique of the culture, as I noted when I read her other collection Kinky, itself a full-on rumination on Barbie.
Of the early poems, I most enjoyed “egg roll,” an odd and sort of risky little piece in which Duhamel recounts her experience as a starving student in New York. To me, Duhamel’s real strength as a poet is the way she so deftly maneuvers her cultural critiques into the poems without putting them in neon:
“she only worked until one so it seemed like a good job and her boss told her all
about the new diets. that if you waited until dinner to eat
and stay away from cherries and grapes and all small fruits because the smaller
the fruit the more sugar and she was supposed to eat apples because that’s how
you get the most fiber with the least amount of calories and calories
that’s what everyone talkede about and she was so tired and hungry
that by the time she arrived at Sarah Lawrence she fell asleep in her literature class”
The critique here is naturally the obliviousness of the boss in telling a starving minimum-wage worker how to stay thin when she can’t even afford the dented cans of beans at the supermarket.
Although I like many of Duhamel’s “lighter” poems (and true, I hate using this word because I think it erroneously reduces the impact of the work—I’m going to start calling this “levity” instead. Duhamel is master of levitation—er, levity—in her work), in this collection the strongest pieces are the longest: Duhamel’s brave, arresting, and utterly unsentimental 9/11 poem “Love Which Took Its Symmetry For Granted” and the snippets from Duhamel’s chapbook Mille et un sentiments
“Love Which Took Its Symmetry For Granted” is a brilliant collage piece in which Duhamel has spliced together (in kinemapoetics) snippets of actual survivor emails describing the experience of that day, those hours, as well as some news reports, and biographical information on Osama bin Laden. The result is a poem that does not blame, but seeks somehow to transcend blame toward taking responsibility for what we can honestly say was our fault here. At this time, in our country now—and I say this having just experienced once again the airport security fearmongering process—this is ballsy. But more than that, it’s necessary. Amid all the first-person accounts, it’s clear that Duhamel’s critique is of the New Culture of Fear we live in—Duhamel reminds us that this is a tragedy of individuals, not a crime against the state or rationale for war. Each person in the World Trade Center that day was and is a victim of that event in a way that America as a nation cannot be victimized.
And—my own personal diabribe here—how fascinating that in the wake of Pearl Harbor we had “nothing to fear but fear itself” and these days we have to fear everything. Even each other.
Mille et un sentiments, a book I’ve read in chapbook form, is a wonderfully idiosyncratic piece that ranges all over the map in terms of subject and tone. The subject line of this post is a line from that poem. Among other things, Duhamel feels open to putting poets’ names into spellcheck (only Elizabeth Biship, Molly Peacock, and Jean Valentine surviving without recommended changes), like having lobster for dinner, that pop music says it all, like any number of notable TV stars, and so forth.
My favorite section of this poem, the 300s, is not included in Two and Two. It features a fascinating and really affecting rumination on eating disorders, female identity, and women who uncontrollably eat dirt (an actual medical condition). When she works in this kind of milleu, I think Duhamel’s mastery is unmatched. She juxtaposes these small mysteries and somehow, we as readers become all the smarter for having considered them together. As a whole, the poem works because Duhamel doesn’t forget to ease the tension with a little levity now and then (“I feel open to stanzas,” which this poem does not use).