Denise Duhamel’s new collection, Blowout, is like a three-act play that begins en medias res with the collapse of her marriage. Part II (Act II) takes us back to the beginning of the story — the “story” being the history of her love life, romantic interests. The final section brings us back to the present and finds her with a new love. Is it a happy ending? Well, provisionally, at least. It’s not Odysseus reuniting with Penelope and slaying the suitors, but there’s a suitor, and she is in love (again). But of course, as Duhamel herself knows, nothing’s ever guaranteed.
The collection begins with the deliciously suggestive title, “How It Will End,” a funny poem about the husband and wife sitting on a bench on the boardwalk watching a lifeguard and his girlfriend having a lovers’ quarrel in the distance. Each takes sides and argues for his/her person. In the end, the lifeguard and the girl seemingly make up, but Duhamel has opened the door to the “irreconcilable differences” that blow her own marriage apart. (“...I say, ‘I don’t know why you can’t just admit/he’s a jerk,’ and my husband says, ‘I don’t know why you can’t admit/she’s a killjoy’...”) Sure enough, in the very next poem, “Duper’s Delight,” the shit hits the fan, as they say:
I can’t tell you
exactly when the glowing projectile disappeared,
but I can tell you when my husband did,
exactly six days later, on September 10th.
The next several poems are like a gossip-monger’s delight as we watch Duhamel fall apart, try to maintain her fragile ego, react to her husband’s erratic behavior, etc. Through it all Duhamel displays a sort of heroic sense of humor (at least in the poems, which are probably a good deal self-therapy). The book’s title comes from a line in the 150-line poem from this first section, “Takeout 2008,” in which she recounts her truly shitty year, from her father’s death, to a flooded apartment that ruins her papers, to the financial collapse we all suffered through, “and did I mention my husband left me?”
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...
Part II begins with “Kindergarten Boyfriend” followed by “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” so you see where this section is going, recreating the impulse and consequences of love, hers and others’, until we get to the poem, “Loaded,” in which, considering hamsters, she writes,
I think about my failed marriage,
how my ex hopped off the wheel
while I kept running. How he loaded up
a suitcase and left me with all our debt
and creditors looking for him to pay his bills.
At this point the re-evaluation of love and her marriage gets caught up in the whole idea of writing poetry. What’s real? How much is interpretation? What eludes words and what ultimately constitutes betrayal? A friend wonders if Duhamel is writing poems about her and her marriage (she is). A man she meets in Nebraska, himself an unflattering character in somebody else’s novel, observes in “You’re Looking at the Love Interest”:
But hey, no hard feelings — he says he understands
why Meghan had to make him out to be a little bit of a jerk.
No conflict, no story, right? As long as he came across
as a sexy guy in the book, what the heck. I mean,
the ex in your poems probably isn’t as terrible
as he is on the page, he says...
Remind me never to cross a clever woman who is an articulate, no-holds-barred writer! Man, what a bastard! you think, reading about the ex who deserted her after sixteen years of marriage. What a lunatic! Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Duhamel!
And so, we come to the poem, “And So,” another lengthy, 120-line or so poem in which it comes to pass
that on January 21, 2009, the day after
the inauguration, you came back
to pick up your stuff that I put in the middle
of the living room with a rope around it.
By the conclusion of this poem we’re back to the start of the collection, really, the genesis of the book. And then, after the husband is gone, the poem concludes:
And so it came to pass — finally,
that I didn’t want to know.
In other words, that’s over. The next poem addresses the theme of poetry writing again, and specifically, love poems. “Old Love Poems” — should they ever have been written? They can’t be taken back. A source of embarrassment, regret? Well, no.
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.
And so the final act of the drama, Part III, marks her recovery, rejuvenation, resurrection. Duhamel goes from funny poems about dating again (“Victor,” Self-Portrait in Hydrogen Peroxide”) to memories of dating (“You Don’t Get to Tell Me What to Do Ever Again”) and finally to the new love interest, to actual love poems. Again, she faces the problem of writing love poetry. In “Having a Diet Coke with You” (an homage to Frank O’Hara’s love poem, “Having a Coke with You,” including O’Hara’s stylistic lack of punctuation), 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
meaning I suppose that I didn’t want to read about their giddy happiness
and I would announce with great authority
that love poems are the most difficult poems to write...
And later in this 180-or-so line poem,
and there it is I suppose the problem
with all narrative postconfessional transgressive poetry
whatever this kind of poetry is referred to as in this moment
how to keep loyal to the art without being disloyal
to the love and what to tell and what to hold back
Duhamel’s poetry is admirable for so many reasons; she’s playful and wise and funny and heartbreaking all at once. What more do you want from poetry?