Paperback - 84 pages (April 1999). Southern
Illinois University Press. $11.95.
In a climate where most books of poetry go unreviewed
and a great many go nearly unnoticed, it is interesting and intriguing
to find a book of poems that inspires readers to either whole-heartedly
embrace it or complete dismiss it. Denise Duhamel's The Star-Spangled
Banner is just such a book.
Reading reviews of The Star-Spangled Banner, I noticed
that the poems in this collection have been praised and criticized
for the very same qualities - what one reviewer calls "all
personality and pose," another refers to as "witty and
engaging." Both reviews play off the final lines of Duhamel's
poem "The Therapist's Funeral," which read "You knew
more / about me than anyone, but your quickly forgetting."
An unsigned Kirkus review states that Duhamel's "jokey poems
are quickly forgotten;" the other claims that this is "a
book not to be missed - a collection readers will find themselves
not 'quickly forgetting.'"
In spite of the compelling voice of the poems collected
in The Star-Spangled Banner and the interesting and challenging
subject matter they take on, it is easy to imagine why some readers
might dismiss this book. To begin with, Denise Duhamel is a writer
who found an audience for her early work outside the poetry establishment.
Though Duhamel has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College (a mark of
the establishment if ever there was one), she is well known as a
veteran of the Nuyorican Poet's Café, a venue often associated
with a poetry defined by its performance rather than its craft,
a poetry known for its in-your-face quality rather than its commitment
to established poetic conventions. Duhamel's early publications,
too, mark her as a kind of outsider.
In comparison to the small press-run, saddle-stapled
chapbooks published early in her career by tiny, little-know presses
name a few: Skirted Issues, Stoplight Press 1990; Its My Body,
Egg in Hand Press 1992; How the Sky Fell, Pearl Editions 1996),
The Star-Spangled Banner, published by the Southern Illinois University
Press, looks like the big time.
Perhaps Duhamel has remained outside the poetry establishment
for much of her career in part because of the very qualities her
fans admire in her work: an assured, unacademic, feminist voice
addressing, with intelligence and humor, issues that are often difficult
and uncomfortable. Duhamel is a post-Barbie feminist writing unashamed,
unabashed, unflinching post-confessional narrative and lyric poems.
The conversational voice and the relaxed, matter of fact treatment
of sometimes-controversial subject matter are, in fact, reasons
some readers will resist, dismiss, even ignore this book.
I describe Duhamel's work as post-confessional because
while it perhaps evolves from confessional impulses, it differs
from work commonly referred to as confessional in its approach and
stance with regard to difficult subject matter. The term confession
is problematic in relation to Duhamel's work because it implies
transgression from the start--before there can be confession, there
must be sin. Duhamel's work has none of the guilt and shame often
evident in confessional poetry. If confessional poetry is about
sensation and shock, Duhamel's work is about exploration and assertion.
The poems in The Star-Spangled Banner are acts of articulation rather
than acts of confession. The lack of apology and disgrace in Duhamel's
poems coupled with her fluid expressiveness may, in fact, make some
Take for instance the Kirkus review I already mentioned.
The reviewer calls The Star-Spangled Banner "exuberant in a
breathless, inarticulate way" and he or she comments that "misunderstanding
is at the center of many of
Duhamel's flighty poems." Misunderstanding is, in fact, a central
theme in The Star-Spangled Banner and many poems collected here
misheard speech, mistaken exchanges, and the struggle to grasp that
which is almost understood. "I have this blind spot,"
the speaker of "The Difference Between Pepsi and the Pope"
tells us, "a dark line, thin as a hair, that
obliterates / a stroke of scenery on the right side of my field
of vision." "How easy it is" Duhamel writes later
in the same poem, "to get so many things all wrong." And
yet Duhamel's casual voice seems not flighty but grounded, comfortable;
in "Insomnio," she writes "Sometimes I think I'm
here and am amazed at my own breathy sounds and hard teeth."
Duhamel's voice, which is both confident and self-conscious,
is one that will seem familiar to many women of her generation.
What the reviewer calls "inarticulate" is, in fact, an
investigation of the difficulty of articulating truths about issues
that are at once central to women's lives and nearly unmentionable.
The grace and honesty with which Duhamel writes about menstruation,
buying "feminine protection," and the inevitably
complex relationship between daughter and mother do not reflect
an inarticulateness, but rather call attention to the fact that
our culture often lacks language that would enable one to speak
easily about these topics.
Duhamel's work often takes as its subject issues
that are emphatically and unapologeticly female, feminine, and feminist.
Some of the poems in The Star-Spangled Banner address ideas that
are likely to be taboo in even the most liberal circles, topics
like masturbating after being aroused by the photos in Playboy magazine.
In "House-Sitting," Duhamel asks "What is the proper
response of a woman looking at Playboy?"
The woman in the poem knows "how she feels about
it politically anyway-angry, threatened, misrepresented." Nevertheless,
"her clit begins
rising against her will" and "she hates her body for being
aroused." This poem's strength is in its complicated structure
of images both compelling and unattractive, the rich layering of
images used to describe the body of the house-sitter and the bodies
of the models in the magazine. The speaker of "Scared About
What Was There," describes starting her period and traces the
rituals of menstruation through the women in her family. Sanitary
pads "held up by belts . . . tabs of gauze in the front and
back that had to be worked elaborately into the metal belt hooks"
replace "corners of an old bed sheet" pinned "into
the crotch of . . .
bloomers." In spite of the "lucky pairing of sanitary
napkins and adhesive," the reality of menstruation never matches
the "ad with that woman with the blond swept-up hair smelling
daisies, who was serenely menstruating, taking a week off to spend
in a field." In "Where to Find Feminine Protection While
Traveling in a Foreign Country," Duhamel
exchanges the American ideas about menstruation with Spanish superstitions
about the power of menstrual blood to attract lizards, who "love
the warm blood that's thicker and browner / than anything succulent
in the desert."
The misunderstandings at the center of the poems in
The Star-Spangled Banner point out the inadequacy of language: "Nothing
comes out / when I scream," Duhamel writes in "Surgery,"
"for a moment I have no language . . I can only think in visuals,
raw and red." Poems like "Yes," "Husband as
a Second Language," and the title poem are about the difficulties
inherent in language. The humorous results of her husband's misunderstanding
of American idioms are the subject of "Husband as a Second
Language" which ends "his pen is mightier than your Ford."
Duhamel deals with the more serious implications of similar misunderstandings
in a poem that explores the possible meanings of the word "yes"
according to a guide to Filipino customs. circumstances, and the
ways in which culture, race, gender, or class further obscure the
meaning (and the emotional weight) of even a simple word like "yes."
The Star-Spangled Banner explores and inhabits the spaces and tensions
between what was said and what was heard, between popular culture
and private life, between fairy tale and reality, between the secular
and the spiritual, between two bodies. The collection's prose poems
verse narratives explore, too, the distinctions between
poetry and prose, between short, lyrical lines and long, unhurried
lines (in "Skipping Breakfast," Duhamel writes, "Prosepoems
are the look-alike cousins of the shortest short stories").
And what Duhamel finds there, in the spaces between, is a kind of
memoir of the moment, an autobiography of the now. Duhamel's poems
are meaningful, if sometimes casual, criticism of cultural ideas
and norms which prevent easy articulation of women's lives. And
we need such utterance to prevent our experiences-however embarrassing
or difficult or painful -- from sliding into the cracks, forgotten
because we could not voice them, because we did not know how to
Nevertheless, the truth is that I read The Star-Spangled
Banner three times before deciding that I liked it. The poems seemed,
at first, flat and prosaic. It took returning to the book several
times to recognize the quiet appropriateness and honesty of some
of the images Duhamel constructs. It occurs to me that in the bold,
exact language with which Duhamel addresses her subject matter is
a particular risk, that of losing sight of poetry's relationship
to music and its dependence on precise sensory image. To be
honest, during my first reading of The Star-Spangled Banner, I was
too distracted by the narrative of some poems to absorb them as
poetry-I read them as one might read a compelling magazine article.
My experience learning how to read these poems reveals much about
the risks one takes in approaching the kind of subject matter Duhamel
deals with in The Star-Spangled Banner
I am grateful for the risks Denise Duhamel takes
in writing these poems. To discount The Star-
Spangled Banner as "quickly forgotten" serves to place
restrictive limits on the subjects poems might explore and the risks
poets might take. Dismissing any poetic mode reduces poetry at large,
making it smaller, closing off its
possibilities. I applaud Duhamel and The Star-Spangled Banner for
the pressure they exert against poetry's boundaries and against
reductive assumptions about what a poem can or should be.