Denise Duhamel |
"...The use of condoms offers substantial protection, but does not
guarantee total protection and that while
there is no evidence that deep kissing has resulted in
transfer of the virus, no one can say that such transmission
would be absolutely impossible."
--The Surgeon General, 1987
I know you won't mind if I ask you to put this on.
It's for your protection as well as mine--Wait.
Wait. Here, before we rush into anything
I've bought a condom for each one of your fingers. And here--
just a minute--Open up.
I'll help you put this one on, over your tongue.
I was thinking:
If we leave these two rolled, you can wear them
as patches over your eyes. Partners have been known to cry,
shed tears, bodily fluids, at all this trust, at even the thought
of this closeness.
Denise Duhamel |
We must have clamored for the same mother, hurried for
the same womb.
I know it now as I read that my birthday is his.
Since the first time I saw his picture, I sensed something—
and with a fierce bonding and animosity
began following his career.
Look where I am and look where he is!
There is a book documenting his every haircut
while all my image-building attempts go unnoticed, even
by my friends.
I'm too wimpy to just dye my curls red
or get them straightened. I, sickeningly moral,
talked about chemicals when I should have been
hanging out with George's pal, Marilyn.
He would have set me right:
Stop your whining and put on this feather tuxedo. Look,
do you want to be famous or not?
In the latest articles, Boy George is claiming he's not
really happy. Hmm, I think, just like me.
When he comes to New York and stays in hotels in
maybe he feels a pull to the Lower East Side,
wanders towards places where I am, but not knowing me,
doesn't know why.
One interviewer asks if he wishes he were a woman.
Aha! I read on with passion: and a poet?—I bet you'd like
You wouldn't have to sing anymore, do those tiring tours.
George, we could switch. You could come live at my place,
have some privacy, regain your sense of self.
So I begin my letter. Dear Boy George,
Do you ever sit and wonder what's gone wrong?
If there's been some initial mistake?
Well, don't be alarmed, but there
Denise Duhamel |
is what we called her. The story was
that her father had thrown Drano at her
which was probably true, given the way she slouched
through fifth grade, afraid of the world, recess
especially. She had acne scars
before she had acne—poxs and dips
and bright red patches.
I don't remember
any report in the papers. I don't remember
my father telling me her father had gone to jail.
I never looked close to see the particulars
of Crater Face's scars. She was a blur, a cartoon
melting. Then, when she healed—her face,
a million pebbles set in cement.
Even Comet Boy,
who got his name by being so abrasive,
who made fun of everyone, didn't make fun
of her. She walked over the bridge
with the one other white girl who lived
in her neighborhood. Smoke curled
like Slinkies from the factory stacks
I liked to imagine that Crater Face
went straight home, like I did, to watch Shirley Temple
on channel 56. I liked to imagine that she slipped
into the screen, bumping Shirley with her hip
so that child actress slid out of frame, into the tubes
and wires that made the TV sputter when I turned it on.
Sometimes when I watched, I'd see Crater Face
tap-dancing with tall black men whose eyes
looked shiny, like the whites of hard-boiled eggs.
I'd try to imagine that her block was full
of friendly folk, with a lighthouse or goats
running in the street.
It was my way of praying,
my way of un-imagining the Drano pellets
that must have smacked against her
like a round of mini-bullets,
her whole face as vulnerable as a tongue
wrapped in sizzling pizza cheese.
How she'd come home with homework,
the weight of her books bending her into a wilting plant.
How her father called her slut, bitch, big baby, slob.
The hospital where she was forced to say it was an accident.
Her face palpable as something glowing in a Petri dish.
The bandages over her eyes.
In black and white,
with all that make-up, Crater Face almost looked pretty
sure her MGM father was coming back soon from the war,
seeing whole zoos in her thin orphanage soup.
She looked happiest when she was filmed
from the back, sprinting into the future,
fading into tiny gray dots on UHF.
Denise Duhamel |
There is a chimp named Ai who can count to five.
There's a poet named Ai whose selected poems Vice
just won the National Book Award.
The name "Ai" is pronounced "I"
so that whenever I talk about the poet Ai
such as I'm teaching Ai's poems again this semester
it sounds like I'm teaching my own poems
or when I say I love Ai's work
it sounds as if I'm saying I love my own poems
but have poor grammar. I haven't had a chance
to talk much yet about this Japanese chimp
who can arrange pictures in order of the number of objects
contained in those pictures. I just read about her
for the first time yesterday, the fifth of January in the year 00
which I imagine would be a hard concept
for Ai the chimp. It feels weird writing 00 -
I had to do it when I wrote my first check
of the year 2000. I think we should proclaim
this year as the year of Olive Oyl, who
is also an 00, but with letters instead of numbers.
I was in the Koko fan club for a while since I love gorillas,
but then I moved around so much, the newsletters
and requests for money stopped coming.
I wonder if Ai the poet is happy she shares a name
with a gifted chimp. To me, the most amazing thing
about Ai the poet is she hardly ever
writes an "I" poem about herself.
She crawls into the hearts
of the cruelest men and writes about what
it is like to be them, while I mostly
curl in the bellies of the shattered women.
There's no evidence that one approach
is better than the other. There's no evidence
that chimpanzees use numbers in the wild.
One expert said that perhaps chimpanzees
count the number of predators they see.
I read on the web that John Wayne actually said,
"I don't feel we did wrong in taking
this great country away from them. There were great numbers
of people who needed new land,
and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves."
So maybe chimps do count their enemies, to see if they
have the advantage, but I'm a romantic -
I like to think that Ai the poet and I mostly count our stanzas.
I like to think Ai the chimp mostly counts her bananas.
Denise Duhamel |
my mother pushed my sister out of the apartment door with an empty
suitcase because she kept threatening to run away my sister was sick of me
getting the best of everything the bathrobe with the pink stripes instead of
the red the soft middle piece of bread while she got the crust I was sick with
asthma and she thought this made me a favorite
I wanted to be like the girl in the made-for-tv movie Maybe I'll Come Home
in the Spring which was supposed to make you not want to run away but it
looked pretty fun especially all of the agony it put your parents through and
the girl was in California or someplace warm with a boyfriend and they
always found good food in the dumpsters at least they could eat pizza and
candy and not meat loaf the runaway actress was Sally Field or at least
someone who looked like Sally Field as a teenager the Flying Nun propelled
by the huge wings on the sides of her wimple Arnold the Pig getting drafted
in Green Acres my understanding then of Vietnam I read Go Ask Alice and
The Peter Pan Bag books that were designed to keep a young girl home but
there were the sex scenes and if anything this made me want to cut my hair
with scissors in front of the mirror while I was high on marijuana but I
couldn't inhale because of my lungs my sister was the one to pass out
behind the church for both of us rum and angel dust
and that's how it was my sister standing at the top of all those stairs that
lead up to the apartment and she pushed down the empty suitcase that
banged the banister and wall as it tumbled and I was crying on the other side
of the door because I was sure it was my sister who fell all ketchup blood and
stuck out bones my mother wouldn't let me open the door to let my sister
back in I don't know if she knew it was just the suitcase or not she was cold
rubbing her sleeves a mug of coffee in her hand and I had to decide she said I
had to decide right then
Denise Duhamel |
In the 5th century B.C.
an Indian philosopher
Gautama teaches "All is emptiness"
and "There is no self."
In the 20th century A.D.
Barbie agrees, but wonders how a man
with such a belly could pose,
smiling, and without a shirt.
Denise Duhamel |
According to Culture Shock:
A Guide to Customs and Etiquette
of Filipinos, when my husband says yes,
he could also mean one of the following:
a.) I don't know.
b.) If you say so.
c.) If it will please you.
d.) I hope I have said yes unenthusiastically enough
for you to realize I mean no.
You can imagine the confusion
surrounding our movie dates, the laundry,
who will take out the garbage
and when. I remind him
I'm an American, that all has yeses sound alike to me.
I tell him here in America we have shrinks
who can help him to be less of a people-pleaser.
We have two-year-olds who love to scream "No!"
when they don't get their way. I tell him,
in America we have a popular book,
When I Say No I Feel Guilty.
"Should I get you a copy?" I ask.
He says yes, but I think he means
"If it will please you," i.e. "I won't read it."
"I'm trying," I tell him, "but you have to try too."
"Yes," he says, then makes tampo,
a sulking that the book Culture Shock describes as
"subliminal hostility . . . withdrawal of customary cheerfulness
in the presence of the one who has displeased" him.
The book says it's up to me to make things all right,
"to restore goodwill, not by talking the problem out,
but by showing concern about the wounded person's
well-being." Forget it, I think, even though I know
if I'm not nice, tampo can quickly escalate into nagdadabog--
foot stomping, grumbling, the slamming
of doors. Instead of talking to my husband, I storm off
to talk to my porcelain Kwan Yin,
the Chinese goddess of mercy
that I bought on Canal Street years before
my husband and I started dating.
"The real Kwan Yin is in Manila,"
he tells me. "She's called Nuestra Señora de Guia.
Her Asian features prove Christianity
was in the Philippines before the Spanish arrived."
My husband's telling me this
tells me he's sorry. Kwan Yin seems to wink,
congratulating me--my short prayer worked.
"Will you love me forever?" I ask,
then study his lips, wondering if I'll be able to decipher
what he means by his yes.
Denise Duhamel |
At first she was sure it was just a bit of dried strawberry juice,
or a fleck of her mother's red nail polish that had flaked off
when she'd patted her daughter to sleep the night before.
But as she scrubbed, Snow felt a bump, something festering
under the surface, like a tapeworm curled up and living
in her left cheek.
Doc the Dwarf was no dermatologist
and besides Snow doesn't get to meet him in this version
because the mint leaves the tall doctor puts over her face
only make matters worse. Snow and the Queen hope
against hope for chicken pox, measles, something
that would be gone quickly and not plague Snow's whole
If only freckles were red, she cried, if only
concealer really worked. Soon came the pus, the yellow dots,
multiplying like pins in a pin cushion. Soon came
the greasy hair. The Queen gave her daughter a razor
for her legs and a stick of underarm deodorant.
doodled through her teenage years—"Snow + ?" in Magic
Markered hearts all over her notebooks. She was an average
student, a daydreamer who might have been a scholar
if she'd only applied herself. She liked sappy music
and romance novels. She liked pies and cake
instead of fruit.
The Queen remained the fairest in the land.
It was hard on Snow, having such a glamorous mom.
She rebelled by wearing torn shawls and baggy gowns.
Her mother would sometimes say, "Snow darling,
why don't you pull back your hair? Show those pretty eyes?"
or "Come on, I'll take you shopping."
staying in her safe room, looking out of her window
at the deer leaping across the lawn. Or she'd practice
her dance moves with invisible princes. And the Queen,
busy being Queen, didn't like to push it.
Denise Duhamel |
They decide to exchange heads.
Barbie squeezes the small opening under her chin
over Ken's bulging neck socket. His wide jaw line jostles
atop his girlfriend's body, loosely,
like one of those novelty dogs
destined to gaze from the back windows of cars.
The two dolls chase each other around the orange Country Camper
unsure what they'll do when they're within touching distance.
Ken wants to feel Barbie's toes between his lips,
take off one of her legs and force his whole arm inside her.
With only the vaguest suggestion of genitals,
all the alluring qualities they possess as fashion dolls,
up until now, have done neither of them much good.
But suddenly Barbie is excited looking at her own body
under the weight of Ken's face. He is part circus freak,
part thwarted hermaphrodite. And she is imagining
she is somebody else-- maybe somebody middle class and ordinary,
maybe another teenage model being caught in a scandal.
The night had begun with Barbie getting angry
at finding Ken's blow up doll, folded and stuffed
under the couch. He was defensive and ashamed, especially about
not having the breath to inflate her. But after a round
of pretend-tears, Barbie and Ken vowed to try
to make their relationship work. With their good memories
as sustaining as good food, they listened to late-night radio
talk shows, one featuring Doctor Ruth. When all else fails,
just hold each other, the small sex therapist crooned.
Barbie and Ken, on cue, groped in the dark,
their interchangeable skin glowing, the color of Band-Aids.
Then, they let themselves go-- Soon Barbie was begging Ken
to try on her spandex miniskirt. She showed him how
to pivot as though he was on a runway. Ken begged
to tie Barbie onto his yellow surfboard and spin her
on the kitcen table until she grew dizzy. Anything,
anything, they both said to the other's requests,
their mirrored desires bubbling from the most unlikely places.
Denise Duhamel |
I had sex with a famous poet last night
and when I rolled over and found myself beside him I shuddered
because I was married to someone else,
because I wasn't supposed to have been drinking,
because I was in fancy hotel room
I didn't recognize. I would have told you
right off this was a dream, but recently
a friend told me, write about a dream,
lose a reader and I didn't want to lose you
right away. I wanted you to hear
that I didn't even like the poet in the dream, that he has
four kids, the youngest one my age, and I find him
rather unattractive, that I only met him once,
that is, in real life, and that was in a large group
in which I barely spoke up. He disgusted me
with his disparaging remarks about women.
He even used the word "Jap"
which I took as a direct insult to my husband who's Asian.
When we were first dating, I told him
"You were talking in your sleep last night
and I listened, just to make sure you didn't
call out anyone else's name." My future-husband said
that he couldn't be held responsible for his subconscious,
which worried me, which made me think his dreams
were full of blond vixens in rabbit-fur bikinis.
but he said no, he dreamt mostly about boulders
and the ocean and volcanoes, dangerous weather
he witnessed but could do nothing to stop.
And I said, "I dream only of you,"
which was romantic and silly and untrue.
But I never thought I'd dream of another man--
my husband and I hadn't even had a fight,
my head tucked sweetly in his armpit, my arm
around his belly, which lifted up and down
all night, gently like water in a lake.
If I passed that famous poet on the street,
he would walk by, famous in his sunglasses
and blazer with the suede patches at the elbows,
without so much as a glance in my direction.
I know you're probably curious about who the poet is,
so I should tell you the clues I've left aren't
accurate, that I've disguised his identity,
that you shouldn't guess I bet it's him...
because you'll never guess correctly
and even if you do, I won't tell you that you have.
I wouldn't want to embarrass a stranger
who is, after all, probably a nice person,
who was probably just having a bad day when I met him,
who is probably growing a little tired of his fame--
which my husband and I perceive as enormous,
but how much fame can an American poet
really have, let's say, compared to a rock star
or film director of equal talent? Not that much,
and the famous poet knows it, knows that he's not
truly given his due. Knows that many
of these young poets tugging on his sleeve
are only pretending to have read all his books.
But he smiles anyway, tries to be helpful.
I mean, this poet has to have some redeeming qualities, right?
For instance, he writes a mean iambic.
Otherwise, what was I doing in his arms.