Review & Commentary
Summer 2000



Nancy Kuhl 

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE NOW: Denise Duhamel's The Star-Spangled Banner Duhamel, Denise. The Star-Spangled Banner.


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 (to
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 readers uncomfortable.

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 address
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 and free

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 say them.

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.


send comments to

first electronic copyright 2000 poetrybay. 
all rights revert to authors

website comments to