Dollar Bills, Blood, and Bras : Denise Duhamel’s “Ka-ching!”

(this is a real thing.)

(this is a real thing. though it would be cooler if they were writing poetry.)

After reading Duhamel’s Blowout, I wanted to read another collection of hers, to see more of her work, and it turned out that Ka-ching! was a good choice because it’s so different from the former. Yes, the poems are still very much personal (Duhamel writes about the personal, that’s just the way it is), about family, friends, lovers, but the focus is shifted, and there’s the added theme of money that ties the collection together. 


The first section of the collection, “Play Money,” starts with a set of blocky prose poems titled with unreal amounts (hundreds of thousands of dollars) — play money. Just like play money, amounts like these are meaningless to most of us. Sure, it’d be nice to have 800,000 dollars, or even 300,000, but such a windfall is unlikely to happen unless… This is where the parents’ accident comes in, an incident that will be the subject of a set of poems later in the book: “I thought that the one upside would be that they’d sue and become millionaires”  (from “1,000,000“). Nearly being killed in an accident seems one of only a handful of ways for a regular person to end up with this type of “play money,” the narrator seems to be saying, but then, even that doesn’t pay: “My father got a new La-Z-Boy, and my mother her fridge. They enjoy iced tea on the porch, perusing travel guides — flipping through Sicily, Hong Kong, Greece.”

The ending of this poem sets the tone for the rest of the collection: It’s full of want and of thinking in terms of “what if” — what if I’d written a best seller, what if I’d struck it rich, … but in the end, it’s all play money, and play with it she does. One of her most playful poems is “Delta Flight 659,” subtitled “to Sean Penn,” in which each line ends on a word with the syllable “pen” in it. It’s more interesting and enjoyable than it might sound, and the random obstruction puts the poem on surprising, albeit not completely random trajectories. The fact that every line ends not on “pen” but rather on a word that contains “pen” (such as penthouse, aspen, penniless, or penguin) also keeps the poem from becoming tedious.

One of the poems, I Dreamed I Wrote This Sestina In My Maidenform Bra,” appeared on the McSweeney’s website a little while back, and it’s still online, so go on, have a look. You know you want to. Ever wonder what cup size Tinkerbell wore? Or Snow White for that matter? Duhamel shows that poetry doesn’t shy away from mundane topics, both here and in, say, her “eBay Sonnets.”

walking-on-sunshineI also enjoyed “Hurricane Katrina,” a poem which takes two quotes (one from Katrina and the Waves and one from Kanye West) and forces them against and into each other as if they, too, were caught in a hurricane. There’s also “Language Police” in which language is policed (in parentheses). And, of course, Duhamel’s clever “Anagram America” — a poem where each line ends on an anagram of “America” — an ode and biting criticism all rolled into one which ends:  “Welcome to America / where the letters can be twisted into almost anything, even Ma, I care.” The anagrams work really great, and since they are set apart typographically, they work both in the respective lines and on their own, “a crime, a” and “camera. I” and “race, aim” are a few examples.

In all, Ka-ching! is a playful, funny and ironic book, the rebellious love child of formal and confessional poetry.

poet Denise Duhamel

poet Denise Duhamel



About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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