Denise Duhamel

Poet Denise Duhamel

Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review


By Denise Duhamel

published by Orchises Press

review by Arthur Mortensen

All poems cited are from Kinky
Copyright (c) 1997 by Denise Duhamel

Just about the time you thought free verse meant odd little images that for all their mock profundity reminded you of a recent campaign for Spot Lite, "the doggie biscuit for fat dogs," along comes Denise Duhamel with this giddy, and sometimes startling collection of satires, all of which star Barbie (and sometimes Ken), that pair of dead-behind-the-eyes dolls that will not die. From its cover of an inflated, apparently sunburned Barbie in a hot pink dress to its last poem "Afterlife Barbie," this book will not stop working over this ubiquitous doll, shaking, tormenting, dressing and undressing, disassembling, and otherwise tearing apart all that Denise Duhamel feels that it stands for or might stand for or might not. Is such weight bearable by a malleable piece of plastic with cheap dyed hair, heels that are too tight, and an anatomy no lover would hope to see, sealed from head to toe (how does it talk or pee?)?

It was a crazy idea, she admits now,
but camouflage was one costume she still hadn't tried.
Barbie'd gone mod with Go-go boots during Vietnam.
Throughout Panama she was busy playing with a frisbee
the size of a Coke bottle cap. And while troops
were fighting in the Gulf,
She wore a gown inspired by Ivana Trump.

from "One Afternoon when Barbie Wanted to Join
the Military"

As a metaphor for a triviality that seems central to many American adventures, or for a malevolent perception of women, Barbie has been used again and again, but usually as a shorthand for a much more complex complaint. Denise Duhamel details the complaints here and throughout this book. One has to think back to the USO scene in Apocalypse Now (helicopters dropping fleshy Barbies from the sky, like bait for sharks), now nearly twenty years ago. And Barbie is still here, changing dresses to reflect the fashion of the times (did she have a crack house outfit? Or one for meetings behind the bar and grill with Bill? Denise Duhamel has probably wondered). All of the poems have strong rhythm, and, as is often true of work by Edmund Pennant, another of Orchises Press's fine narrative poets, Duhamel's work frequently approaches blank verse -- stretch Coke to Coca-Cola, move "and while troops" down to the next line and add a syllable (maybe "out") and you have a blank verse about like Robert Frost's, a poet who rarely affected airs, at least in poetry. But, no more of that....)

When Barbie was under
anesthesia, her whole body
replaced with smooth plastic,
she swore she heard her doctors
telling smutty jokes.
When the surgeons sliced off her nipples
to put in the silicone implants
they decided to leave the milk-outlets off
because, after this, the nerve endings
would be dead and Barbie
wouldn't be able to feel
anything anyway....

from "Sensational Barbie"

This poem begins with an inscription about the Japanese having perfected a lifelike geisha with artificial skin; the associations are immediately chilling, considering the outrage of the "comfort women," those women in Korea kidnapped and imprisoned for the amusement of the Japanese occupying army. That may not even be Duhamel's intent, and who can really know that anyway? But the association's there. What do women in such conditions give up but every joy and every aspect of independence, including thought and will? They become gutted dolls, where

...the doctors
cut around Barbie's neck,
took off her head, and removed her
vocal cords and brain. This
was when all memory was lost,
her youth, her adolescence, the smutty jokes.

from "Sensational Barbie"

As a metaphor for all women in America, this is a bit much, and one doubts that such women would be glad, as Duhamel's giddily self-sacrificial (i.e., suicidal) Barbie is at the end of this poem and in other and similar circumstances described in the book. The gladness expressed by this doll for her condition has nothing to do with "comfort women," but may perhaps involve a puzzling aspect of many of us, not just women, a surprising will to submit to brutalization and stupefaction. Attend a movie that critics describe as brilliant, which contains scene after scene of horrifying violence, and it is amazing how many viewers, who might otherwise claim themselves to be a part of the intelligentsia, will sit there gaping, nodding their heads, and imagining that the grotesquerie onscreen is high art when it is nothing but pornography. Attend a debate about contemporary issues and how many times have you come away wondering whether either candidate has a clue of how to do anything but push buttons on voters who don't care about the subject under discussion? Stupefaction and dehumanization have become so much a part of what's described as "critical discussion" and "politics" that one can't help but think of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD in Rome, when Cicero's rhetorical arts had become little more than the means to tell lies. In such an atmosphere, stories need to be told in detail, without recourse to the cheap trick of happy endings where they aren't believable, or tragic ones where they make no sense.

The two dolls chase each other around the orange Country Camper
unsure what they'll do when they're within touching distance.
Ken wants to feel Barbie's toes between hs lips,
take off one of her legs and force his whole arm inside her.
With only the vaguest suggestion of genitals,
all the alluring qualities they possess as fashion dolls,
up until now, have done neither of thgem much good.
But suddenly Barbie is excited looking at her own body
Under the weight of Ken's face....

from "Kinky"

The title poem of the book is breathtaking, Duhamel sweeping across the landscape of sexual relationships and not finding much there but desolated, denatured, desexed people who, in spite of themselves, will still try "anything, anything." Exchanging heads, the two dolls try to be each other, discovering in the process an attraction to their own bodies, and yet in this strangest of all matings uncover desire "bubbling from the most unlikely places." The book roars on from there, through "Planning the Fantasy Wedding" and "Marriage," reaching a peak in "Tragedy," where Barbie and Ken discover, after their "marriage," that they are -- but you'll have to read the book.

After this, the last third of the book covers what have become a bit hackneyed as themes. For instance, it would be difficult to convince the legions of women who are corporate officers, engineers, doctors, professors, lawyers, account executives, MIS professionals, druggists, or even secretaries and bus drivers that Barbie is a metaphor for their condition. Tosuggest that this is so is to denigrate two generations of work to transform society. And so some of the poems at the end of the book seem akin to impassioned dissents against the Vietnam War written twenty years after it ended, feeling more like conditioned responses than replies to contemporary insults. That is, of course, the risk of writing satirical work. It ages quickly; and these may have been written many years ago.

But 2 out of 3 is better than anyone playing baseball. And, in case you hadn't guessed, Kinky by Denise Duhamel is much recommended. And expect to be surprised; as in the best of satire, the combination of malice, concern, detail, and imagination exposes far more to ridicule (and further examination, one hopes) than the reader, or perhaps even the author, had first supposed.

Arthur Mortensen

Publisher Information Kinky is published by: Orchises Press
P.O. Box 20602
Alexandria, VA 22320-1602



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