QUEEN FOR A DAY
Somewhere between Sex and the City, Sharon Olds and Spalding Gray lies the poetry of Denise Duhamel, who in six volumes during the 1990s (all from small independent or small university presses) established herself as a vivacious, sarcastic, uninhibited and sometimes sex-obsessed observer of contemporary culture. Long fascinated by downtown New York, Duhamel got poetic mileage from her once-rough neighborhoods. Now she lives and teaches in Miami: this new-and-selected sums up her NYC years. The weakest poems come first. "Sometimes the First Boys Don't Count" could be Olds exactly ("I swallowed like a brave girl taking her medicine"); "Bulimia" predictably evokes "the palate—hidden and secret as a clitoris." Later Duhamel found ways to write about sex and sexual politics without being bound to confessional realism. The Woman with Two Vaginas from 1995 claimed to translate Inuit tales: "He-Whose-Penis-Never-Slept," the title poem, and others found mythological parallels for dilemmas women still face. Kinky (1997), a series of poems about Barbie, played on the doll's status as ironic ideal: when "Barbie Joins a Twelve Step Program," having "been kidnapped by boys/ and tortured with pins," she realizes her "God must be Mattel." Duhamel's most recent work finds two new subjects: her husband's Filipino culture and language, and her position in the poetry world: "I was suddenly angry at my dad for not being Ashbery." (Apr.)
Forecast: With its self-conscious ease, its nervous in-jokes and its general lack of formal interest, Duhamel's work will be held up as a model by few highbrow critics. On the other hand, its humor, anger and forceful personality could make the book a genuine popular hit.