Blowout, by Denise Duhamel. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 104 pages. $15.95, paper.
In Blowout, Denise Duhamel jaywalks across the intersections of the personal and historical, narrowly escaping a Mack truck and arriving safely at a picnic with a new lover who has ode-worthy eyebrows. Duhamel takes the collection’s title from a line in “Takeout, 2008”: “It is already 2009 / in Bangkok, where 61 partygoers were killed in a nightclub fire. / The party was billed on the poster as a ‘blowout.’ Yes, / there are people far worse off than I.” The word “blowout” shows the extremes—both positive and negative—of life in the 21st century. The speaker’s impulse to weigh her suffering against the suffering of others is an attempt to find balance through contextualization, yet the very comparison reveals just how elusive balance can be. While examining the formation and dissolution of romantic relationships, Duhamel also examines the relationship between the poet and the reader. She faces and expertly handles “the problem / with all narrative postconfessional transgressive poetry,” which she defines as “how to keep loyal to the art without being disloyal / to the love and what to tell and what to hold back.”
The book’s first poem, “How It Will End,” involves a couple watching another couple argue. As they watch the lifeguard and his girlfriend, the husband and wife speculate about the cause of the disagreement and how it will end. Throughout the dialogue, the lifeguard’s red flag signals the strengthening and weakening of emotional currents. Duhamel writes:
The red flag that slaps against his station means strong currents.
“She just has to get it out of her system,”
my husband laughs, but I’m not laughing.
I start to coach the girl to leave her no-good lifeguard,
but my husband predicts she’ll never leave.
By the end of the poem, the lifeguard and his girlfriend have made up, and “[t]he red flag flutters, then hangs limp.” Of course, the husband and wife have projected their own relationship problems onto the other couple, but they don’t seem to manage a similar resolution.
In the first section of Blowout, the marriage rapidly disintegrates. In “Madonna and Me,” a poem that illustrates how pop culture provides a grand narrative of sorts, Duhamel writes, “Madonna and I went through / our divorces / around the same time.” By placing “our divorces” on a line by itself, Duhamel isolates the intimacy that results from separation—divorce becomes a rite of passage that binds the speaker and Madonna in the plural possessive, at least in the speaker’s eyes. She continues, “[A]nd I followed her and Guy Ritchie / on perezhilton.com / as a kind of therapy.” On the surface, these lines resonate as honest and funny, and they are, but they also allow us to criticize our culture. Even as the speaker indulges in the sensational, exploitative stories on perezhilton.com, she sensationalizes and exploits herself through the poem. Yet the sensational and exploitative become therapeutic. At the end of the poem, the speaker realizes that “you can help a few people / and they can help you / as you step into the applause.” Being part of a performance, either as the performer or audience, allows one to participate in life, connecting with other people. In “Heartburn,” the speaker turns to movies, renting She-Devil, War of the Roses, and The First Wives Club. Although she does not succeed in finding “the divorce / movie that truly captures / (her) situation,” she writes in “An Unmarried Woman,” “just as I am rooting for myself, watching this movie again on DVD / thirty years later, part of my postdivorce Netflix recovery.” The iconography of film gives her a vocabulary for narrating her own experience, and it connects her to people who speak the same language.
Movies and music are not the only sources for broadcast narratives. The speaker also turns to—and, at times, away from—the news. Her husband leaves her on September 10th. In “Loaded,” a white hamster on CNN reminds her of her ex. “Recession Commandments” uses Biblical language to catalog (even though one commandment states, “thou shalt not bear witness to the sad stories around thee”) the realities of the recession. The tension between the archaic language and the items in the lists at once elevates the historical significance of the so-called Great Recession and undercuts it. The poem depicts Americans in all of our glorious frivolity, commanding us:
thou shalt watch American Idol, whether on TV or podcast
thou shalt watch anything that will give thee false hope—that thou could compete
on a show like America Has Talent or I Love Money to earn a windfall,
that thou could once again afford Heavenly Hash ice cream, Earth shoes,
or a new Brita water filter
thou shalt not even dare window-shop for a killer purse, adult DVDs, sunglasses
that last year thou would have thought a bargain
The final commandments tell the reader “thou shalt not inflate thine own suffering / nor the suffering of others / thou shalt not believe it could happen to thee.” Again, the suffering of others provides a scale for gauging one’s own suffering, and it’s probably true that someone else is almost always worse off, yet that minimization of suffering does not eliminate suffering. A poverty in which people long for Heavenly Hash and adult DVDs seems shallow and perhaps egocentric and ethnocentric, but as the New York School aesthetic implies, things have the potential to define us. As we go about “freely espousing,” as James Schuyler put it, we couple with things, and they become a part of us; to lose them is to lose part of oneself, and the loss of self is one of the severest forms of poverty. When one finds oneself destitute through the loss of possessions and significant others, one must turn to other means of self-definition—often the past.
In the second section of Blowout, Duhamel revisits the past in an attempt to explain why the speaker’s marriage has failed, beginning with “Kindergarten Boyfriend.” When he refuses to give the speaker a recently lost tooth, she flings “puzzle pieces and start(s) to cry.” The poem concludes, “Even then, my expectations were too high.” However, in fourth grade, the speaker falls for “the fattest boy in class” because “(o)ne time when (her) nose started to bleed” and she “didn’t have any tissues,” he gave her “his science worksheet, then a big maple leaf, to catch the blood.” She says, “So what if he couldn’t dance? That was love.” The theme of rescue appears again in “Lower East Side Boyfriend,” but this time the speaker helps the soon-to-be new lover. She has an encounter with an artist who lives in her building. He and his girlfriend have just broken up after a fight that resulted in him putting his fist “through a glass coffee table.” Duhamel ends the poem, “I contemplated asking where all his paintings were, / but instead I took the tweezers from his shaking hand / and began to pull out the shards from his palm.”
In “My New Chum” and “A Different Story,” the focus shifts from romantic relationships to friendships and the dangers of being friends with a poet. The new chum is from Surrey, and the speaker loves her chum’s manner of speaking. In “A Different Story,” the woman from Surrey wonders whether the speaker “steal(s) stories from other people’s lives.” Of course, the speaker has already written one poem about the woman, and even as the woman expresses her concerns, the speaker starts “to write the (next) poem in (her) head.” She says, “I have to get it all down before someone else does.” In “You’re Looking at the Love Interest,” the speaker meets a man about whom another writer has written. As he rushes her to the airport, they discuss the disparity between literature and life. Although he claims that he’s only “70 percent as bad” as the novelist made him look, he has “no hard feelings”: “no conflict, no story,” he says. His final words are, “Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.” This “truth” applies equally well to marriage and writing. Explaining the value of writing “Old Love Poems,” Duhamel writes:
You look back at a love poem you wrote and ask:
did I really feel this way? Even if you no longer remember tenderness,
even if the verse was simply artifice, your idea of love, a subspecies
you made up to tag and define that one poor sap, you now read the poem
again, grateful, holding the words in your hands like a bunch of flowers.
If writing is an act of betrayal, it’s a betrayal that ends in gratitude for a love that transcends both the lovers and the poet.
The third and final section of Blowout has the speaker return to the dating scene. At the end of “Self-Portrait in Hydrogen Peroxide,” a poem whose title pays homage to John Ashbery, the speaker roars, “the big laugh of a blonde cougar.” This roar represents the emergence of a new self and the possibility of a new relationship. In the penultimate poem of the collection, “Having a Diet Coke with You,” Duhamel again nods to the New York School—this time to Frank O’Hara. She writes, “it is hard to believe I am writing a love poem / after years of telling my students / who wants to read about your giddy happiness.” Breaking the narrative to meditate on the act of writing, Duhamel writes:
I told myself starting out I was going to use Frank O’Hara’s
“Having a Coke with You” to model this poem
he has four lines that begin with “partly because” too
but after the anaphora I could no longer follow his path
and I broke away from his form but not from his essence
As she repeatedly tries to say “I love you,” she refers to the O’Hara poem again: “but this O’Hara love poem has been lingering in me / waiting for you to come along so I could share it.” The poem ends with the speaker’s wish to take her lover on a picnic after they finish their Diet Cokes. She envisions the couple sharing an apple, “slicing off chunks with a knife / or just passing it back and forth taking bites / while you tell me everything you know.” Duhamel’s portrayal of love comes across as authentic because she grounds it in the everydayness of life. She is given to neither self-pity nor melodrama, unlike many poets who write in the “post-confessional” mode. She takes the best parts of O’Hara’s aesthetic and makes them her own; there is neither anxiety nor self-consciousness in her work. In Blowout, she shows her “slip” and her “smarts,” revealing what it means “to discover each other.”
Jordan Sanderson earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007. His poems have appeared in several journals, including Caketrain, Double Room, The Fiddleback, Phantom Limb, and Spectrum, and his reviews and criticism have appeared in The Hollins Critic, Rain Taxi, and other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he teaches English.