Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Denise Duhamel's "Ka-Ching!"

On Inauguration Day, I drove to Delray Beach to hear Denise Duhamel read at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. I gave myself plenty of time, since I expected rush hour traffic.

Of course, when you give yourself time for rush hour traffic, you might not need the extra time. That's how I ended up in Delray Beach an hour early.

Happily, Books and Books was there to sell the books of the authors appearing at the Festival, and even more happily, I got Denise Duhamel's book, Ka-Ching!, before its release date. I went into the auditorium and dug right in. And since I didn't have the distractions of the computer, the television, colleagues or friends, I got a lot of reading done. When I feel despair about the reading I'm not doing, I remind myself that I'm not commuting (I used to read several books a week when I could take public transportation to work) or travelling by airplane as much (again, I get a lot of reading done on airplanes).

I read Denise Duhamel's book, and then--even more delight! Much of her reading came from her new book.

One of the themes that weaves its way through the book is the way that money shapes our modern society, for better or worse. The book opens with poems that are printed on shaded rectangles of paper on the page. During the reading, Duhamel held up some paper money from a board game and told of how she wrote the poem on the actual piece of play money. The piece of paper served as a limiting agent, much as a formalist form both limits and liberates.

Duhamel's book includes many poems written in form. One of my favorite villanelles is Duhamel's "'Please Don't Sit Like a Frog, Sit Like a Queen'"--in fact, I bought The Best American Poetry 2006 in part to have a copy of that poem. Her book also includes poems that include some word play, like "Anagram America" and "Delta Flight 659," which is sort of a sestina and sort of a sestina-like poem that incorporates the word pen into the end word--the poem got its inspiration from Sean Penn and a Delta flight.

Duhamel's signature humor and fascination with popular culture are here in poems like "Dinner Party Horror," where we see people analyzing the parts they would play in a horror movie. But Duhamel shows that she's equally capable of serious subjects, with an extended poem sequence about a horrifying elevator accident suffered by her parents.

It's fascinating to be reading this book as financial structures melt down one after another, and we watch our elected leaders trying to determine how to fix everything. Duhamel's poems remind us that real humans are behind the news stories of financial crisis. Her poems also remind us that many life markers that look like a crisis at the time are survivable (and even humorous years later), and her optimistic reminder of the incredible resilience of many people refreshes the reader.

No comments: