Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other titles include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009); Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005); Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001); The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); and Kinky (Orhisis, 1997). She and Maureen Seaton co-authored CAPRICE (Collaborations: Collected, Uncollected, and New) (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). Duhamel is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenhiem Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The guest editor is for The Best American Poetry 2013, she is a professor at Florida International University in Miami. William D. Waltz in Rain Taxi, writes, "As I read her work...I feel like I'm taking a sneak peek at the future: Duhamel hints at a poetry that transcends irony and alienation. There's plenty of both here, but she's busy working them over...pushing so hard that the next step may be beyond what is known."
You seared in noon sun
having called 911
after you’d pulled into traffic
without checking the side view mirror,
after you’d pulled over to park
to call the divorce lawyer
to say you were lost, after you’d been
too scared to make that unprotected left—
your heartbeat like the samba setting
on the electric organ
that you would turn to “fastest”
when you were a kid so you and your sister
could jump around in a flailing dance.
You’d rammed the back passenger door
of a silver Honda just like your own,
the Jamaican nanny oddly calm, saying
Don’t worry, love. You looked into her Civic’s window,
the empty car seat, and asked, Where’s the baby?
afraid a child had been thrown. The nanny,
thank goodness, explained she’d just dropped
the child at preschool. You’d apologized
and apologized. Rhe nanny must have thought,
Here is another crazy white lady
and maybe you reminded her of her boss.
Now you’d never get in to see
the best divorce lawyer in Miami.
Your friend had called on your behalf—
and the receptionist explained it was this appointment
or else—because this lawyer preferred
to take on divorces of rich people
and you were not rich, though rich is relative,
of course, and you were probably rich
compared to the nanny who said that the Honda
was her boss’s third car and she took the bus to work.
Like me, she hated driving in Miami
and favored the side streets
like the one were on, the one that was a “Terrace”
rather than a Street or Avenue
which is why even the police
were having a hard time finding you.
The nanny sat in her boss’s air-conditioned Honda
drinking a cup of gas station coffee
while you stood in that sun, punishing yourself—
no sunscreen or hat—and half-hoped
the police would arrest you
so it wouldn’t be your job to file and dissolve
this marriage. You were half out of your mind
since you hadn’t slept in 48 hours
and you’d lost track of how many Xanax you’d popped
which seemed to be having their opposite effect,
your samba heart clumsy and frantic.
And only after the police finally came
and wrote you up—a ticket for being reckless—
after the nanny had driven off, did you realize
your car wouldn’t start, the crumpled transmission
kaput. So you called Triple A and climbed into a tow truck
and the kind driver gave you water and asked,
Lady, isn’t there anyone you want to call?
So you called your little sister in Massachusetts
who said she’d come and bring you
to another divorce lawyer herself in a rental car
while yours was being repaired. You’d learn
you were head of household, more like a man
than a woman, and your husband, like a 50’s housewife,
would get half of what you had.
You called the nanny a few days later to make sure
she still had her job and she did. Your sunburn blistered
then started to flake away.
Soon you’d be poorer, or half as rich.
Soon you’d be saner and get back
to wearing sun block and visors.
But first you’d spend nights
peeling away a layer of your own skin
your troubled forehead emerging pink and raw.
You think I am only interested in you, oh self-centered human. How you cry when I take the young girl. Wasn’t it that pervert Poe who said, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world?” Willard Motley wrote, “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.”
You probably thought I didn’t notice your gendered thinking. You probably thought all these years I was a man—the way you drew me in a cloak, my grim walk helped along with a scythe. You probably thought when I peered from my hood that my male gaze was just like yours.
Your vulgar TV shows are an insult to my powers. Only ten percent of your characters are women, mostly young, those who other humans deem “hot.” And of these ten percent, half go on to star as the corpse—washed ashore, their makeup somehow still intact. Raped, kidnapped, naked on display in slabs at the morgue. A concerned member of the patriarch slides each beauty from a wall the same way she once slid open her fridge’s vegetable drawer.
Caravaggio painted rotting fruit—and that, humans, is what I find “the most poetical.” Consider the fallen mangos decaying on the lawn, raccoons eating the delicious garbage. Consider the grape made raisin, the plum made prune, the dried peach in your granola. The date or the fig, which you will see as a woman too: young and seeded, then dried out and preserved, the innards of a Newton.
I saw you take that selfie with the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha of Bewitched. You were feeling particularly mortal, like Darren, but did you ever stop to think about how few statues of women there are? Not only in Salem, MA but also in New York City where Alice in Wonderland was the only female statue until Gertrude Stein—at last, a “real” woman!—was erected in Bryant Park.
I wasn’t surprised you bought that pink size 2T t-shirt that boasted “I Am A Little Witch” under the silhouette of a conical hat and broom. Always an admirer of witches, you thought it would be a great present. But the parents of the girl pointed out the obvious subtext, obvious to everyone but you. “Are you trying to say my daughter is a bitch?”
I know these conflicts are the ways you humans fill out your days to try to forget the dying grass, the dying seas, all the animals and birds, the robin’s egg fallen from the nest, the roses browning in your vase.
And, of course, it’s true I am coming for you—young man, child learning to read, whiskered grandfather, mother of three. I live in the double helix’s faulty twist of cancer and arrhythmia, strokes and cystic fibrosis. I lurk in traffic and bullets, in knife blades and riptides. I am here to do my job, round you up. Hello, dear soldier and cyclist, dear obese night watchman and scrawny addict. Hello, all you men, who statistically die first, who whistle by the graveyard of pretty girls.
What does it mean, she asked us, to be good?
good manners good eater good lover good listener good dog good boy good storyteller goody-two-shoes looks good enough to eat good witch good at math good-for-nothing good-looking got the goods a good book a good movie a good song on the Good Ship Lollipop my goodness good fellow good cop good buddy good egg from a good family in a good neighborhood with a good school with good teachers where you get good grades so you can get into a good college and get a good job at a good company with good benefits and a good retirement plan and make a good return on your good investments good luck good news good joke “hey, that’s a good one” good manners good lay good heart the good old boys’ network good mother good God that’s good booze good steak good legs good price good works good news good grief Charlie Brown looking for Mr. Goodbar goody-goody good old days good sale the good word good father good idea good night ladies we hate to see you go good race no good deed goes unpunished good wife good to the last drop goodness gracious Goodnight Moon Good Time Charlie good sport for a good time call good waiter one good turn deserves another good doctor a good licking a good swift kick have a good day the good the bad and the ugly good for a laugh only the good die young a good fit a good match good seats good husband good cholesterol Good ‘n Plenty good driver good help good person from good people good brother good businessman good deal good sister have a good time have a good cry good friend fight a good fight good morning good night Goodyear tires the good guy good vacation (bon voyage) good soup good nurse good politician it’s for the good of the people it’s over and done with for good say good riddance a good time was had by all
Nick had food poisoning in Paris so he stayed in the hotel while I went to the French laundromat where I fiddled with the knobs on the unfamiliar machines and inserted big coins into airy slots. This guy kept trying to flirt with me, so I showed him my wedding ring and, when that didn’t work, Nick’s boxers. The stranger shrugged a Parisian why should I care if you’re married? shrug. I felt like a character in the background of Dorianne Laux’s great poem “The Laundromat” in which she uses the phrase “animal kindness.” In her poem, the speaker bends over to pick up her laundry and show some guy her ass at the same time. I’m the shy woman in a graying tee shirt, biting her nails, who no one in that poem even notices, who Dorianne Laux didn’t even bother to write in.
And what is the fun of being flirtatious anyway? Flirting is actually sort of scary to me. My theory is that it’s all about the ego of the flirter and almost nothing at all about the recipient of the flirtatiousness. And there’s even a shampoo commercial now that backs up my hypothesis—I only flirt when I look good—a woman checks herself out in a mirror as she comes into a room. And that’s sort of it, isn’t it? We flirt to make ourselves feel better or to try to make peace with our marriages or get our boyfriends/girlfriends jealous or whatever.
But I feel like a killjoy saying that because so many people get a kick out of flirting, and often it’s harmless. But so many things can go wrong, no? And what if you get in real trouble? I’m not even talking violence, but just hurt feelings. The one flirted with has to always reconcile with the fact that she’s been duped, that the flirter is taken, and the flirtation was nothing more than a little pick-me-up to make the flirter feel good. Know what I mean? And what if the person who flirts back—ooh la la—leads on the initiating flirter who, in this one instance, is actually serious?
It’s like that dry shampoo Pssst, popular in the seventies. Remember? It wasn’t really shampoo at all—it only made your hair look clean. Once when I was hemming a skirt at the beach, this old man came up to me and said my wife used to sew like that. Then the sad lull, the opposite of flirting. The waves crashed in Miami, the washing machines rumbled in Paris. The man I didn’t flirt with was offended and now I had no one to help show me how to use the dryer. I looked across the street where inside a tiny room my husband sweated and clutched his stomach. The romantic afternoon sunrays were butter pads melting into the hotel’s awning.
FADE INS AND BLACK OUTS
(after Luc Etienne, a variation)
To the reader: For the complete "Möbius Strip" effect, print out two copies of this poem. Scotch tape the pages together into two long pages, each containing the entire poem, then cut away the title and anything under the last line of the poem which now reads, "my bra." Trim away any white space beyond the left and right margins, leaving no more than an inch on each side to make a "strip" of words. Scotch tape, glue, or staple the trimmed poems back to back, so that both copies run parallel to each other, but in a mirrored image. The first lines of both copies, " I slow-," should be back to back to one another, and so on. Loop the poem into a cylinder, then twist it once before splicing and scotch taping what is currently the first line and last line together. The last line/first line should now read, "my bra. I slow-" on both sides of the Möbius. You can begin and end your reading of this "Möbius Strip" poem at any point you like--I suggest beginning any point where there is block of white space.
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