In workshop we’ve been talking about manuscript titles (and how to choose one), and I think Denise Duhamel’s Blowout is well-titled. This is a blowout:
The uncontrolled release of a substance (like crude oil — or, in this case, powerful basic emotions –) under great pressure. Duhamel’s poems in this collection return again and again to the themes of betrayal and divorce, even as the poems vary greatly in style and tone. From the silliness of “My New Chum” (which plays with stereotypical British English) via the commentary on memes (a “cute” hamster that makes it onto CNN in “Loaded”) and the wordplay of “Worst Case Scenario” to the dark “Lower East Side Boyfriend” and the sweet “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” Duhamel covers love in many of its forms.
I enjoyed “Recession Commandments” and “Little Icaruses” the most, I think. “Recession Commandments” is a nod to the Ten Commandments and plays with biblical language, while making commandments that are so detailed they rival the Mosaic Law in intricacy: from a simple “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house” we quickly move on to “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s oxygen bar or ass nor Assembly of God membership […] not tennis racket nor rollerblades nor art collection nor wine glasses nor Costco membership nor ice cubes nor commanding presence in a room nor junk mail and catalogs” and it goes on and on. The poem is in three parts, and the last part, “Inflation,” packs the most punch. It ends on “thou shalt not bear witness to the sad stories around thee — the abandoned hotels, once swanky, but now full of crack; the girl squatting in an apartment with nothing but a mattress and a webcam; […] thou shalt not believe it could happen to thee”
“Little Icaruses” is short and straight-forward. It captures a sense of confidence and determination, — replacing a burnt-out light bulb in a lamp is like re-igniting the sun, and the new light bulb will be just as irresistibly attractive to the moths (and all the other little Icaruses) as the the freshly painted lips when she drives out into the neon mist.
And then, of course, there’s “My Strip Club” — a genuinely funny, intelligent poem. Since it’s in both this collection and in a volume of Best American Poetry and also online at the Rumpus, it shouldn’t be hard to find. In fact, why not read it right here, in the middle of The Rumpus‘s (2013) interview with Duhamel.
In this short poem, Duhamel envisions a revolutionary strip club, one that succeeds where the movie Magic Mike failed (read a smart discussion of it at Sociological Images): the best answer to a sexist culture where a woman is reduced to bare skin and body parts is not, in fact, simply applying the same principle to men (and Magic Mike doesn’t even succeed at that!).
At Duhamel’s strip club, women add layer upon layer of clothing. I read this also as a humorous feminist response to the common myth that things are different now — that it’s great that women have the sexual ‘freedom’ to wear as little as they like and to choose stripping. Truth is, we still live in a culture that objectifies women and teaches them from an early age that they are a body, a commodity, a consumer product. (Before I go into a full-blown rant, I’ll just stop myself right there.)
Duhamel’s Blowout feels personal, like a private conversation over a romantic comedy and a few glasses of sweet wine.