Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems

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Queen for a Day: Selected And New Poems

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822957621
  • Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Series: Pitt Poetry Series
  • Pages: 120
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.75 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    Mr. Donut

They tumble from closing bars into here. Uninspired men nicknamed for their hair: Whitie, Red; the bald one, Flesh.
What a way to save to go to Europe. But that's what I'm doing, the donut waitress taking advantage of drunks. I look through the fatty blurred window, remind them often of my aspirations, drum on the countertop: I am not like them.
Red's got a novelty passport and motions me over. He thinks his finger's alluring as Cape Cod, the farthest I bet he's ever gone. "Guess where I've been?" he slurs and has me open the blue book. A rubber jack-in-the-box penis pops out.
I think of adding sugar to the diabetics' coffee when they laugh, describing their naked wives. Twenty-four hours, any day, they know here they can There's not even a lock on the Mr. Donut door, so when there's a fight on the corner, Flesh tells me to call the police from the phone in back: "If the bikers see you finking, they'll get your ass:
From behind the muffin case, the motorcycle clash looks like a home movie: skipping loops, a volume lapse as bikes are kicked over, heads smashed. The blood puddles slowly, graying. Connie strolls in, her lipstick all crazy: the fight's over her. She wants a light. I know she'll stain the rim of her cup. But they all leave big bills under the saucers, and I get to read the few quiet hours before dawn.

    Sometimes the First Boys Don't Count

Walking home through thewoods from the movie at the plaza that I didn't remember minutes after it ended, an action adventure that I didn't want to see, but said yes to just in case you held my hand, and you did. Walking home by the shortcut, the path the developers made because they'd be building houses soon, we had nothing to say. It was our first date and you stopped to kiss me, the cold of the mud wetting my feet. Your tongue, like an animal's, rough and eager, through the chain link of a zoo's fence. I didn't know you, but you put your hands up my shirt like it was nothing to either of us. You cupped each of my breasts as though holding me back, or measuring me for something, then kept walking, not taking my hand anymore. Even at fifteen, I knew you were the type that after the first kindnesses, the honeymoon was over. Your face in the night was even flatter, less pronounced than it was in the light. I knew, before this, that I didn't love you or even want to talk to you the next day in school. I told my girlfriends that you weren't very smart. You took shop and fixed cars with your dad, not even the intricacies under the hood, just body work And when I went to that garage in your backyard because we were going to another movie and your mother said I should get you so we wouldn't be late, I saw calendar pages curling under a picture of a topless woman in short-shorts. She was holding a wrench to her lips. Your dad looked at me the same way you did, but that was how I wanted to be looked at then—that was how I thought it should be. You washed the grease from your hands, wiped your brow with your forearm and were ready. A few dates later I held your penis as though it were a science experiment and put it in my mouth when you asked. A kind of aspic squirted out. I swallowed like a brave girl, taking her medicine.


A kiss has nothing to do with sex, she thinks. Not really. That engulfing, that trying to take all of another in for nourishment, to become one with her, to become part of her cells. The way she must have had everything she wanted in the womb, without asking. Without words, kisses have barely the slurp-sound of a man entering a woman or sliding back out—neither movement with even the warning of a bark The Greek word "boulimia," ox hunger. Petting, those kisses are called, or sometimes necking. She read this advice in a sex manual once: "Take the man's penis, slowly at first, like you are licking melting ice cream from the rim of a cone." But the gagging, the choke— a hot gulp of tea, a small chicken bone, a wad of gum grown too big. That wasn't mentioned. It's about what happens in her mouth past her teeth, where there is no more control, like a waterfall— or it being too late when the whole wedding cake is gone:
she orders one from a different bakery this time, so no one will remember her past visits and catch on. She's eating slowly at first, tonguing icing from the plastic groom's feet, the hem of the bride's gown, and those toothpick points that kept them rooted in pastry. She cuts the top tier into squares, reception-like. (The thrill she knew of a wedding this past June, stealing the white dessert into her purse, sucking the sugary blue gel from a napkin one piece was wrapped in. She was swallowing paper on her lone car ride home, through a red light, on her way to another nap from which she hoped a prince's kiss would wake her.)
The second tier in her hands, by fistfuls, desperate as the Third World child she saw on TV last week taking in gruel. Her head, light like her stomach, is pumped up with air. She can't stop. She puckers up to the sticky crumbs under her nails. Then there are the engraved Valentine candies: CRAZY, DREAM GIRL ACT NOW, YOU'RE HOT. She rips open the bag, devouring as many messages as she can at once. They all taste like chalk. She rocks back and forth. She has to loosen the string on her sweatpants, part of her trousseau. The bag of candy is emptied. The paper doily under the cake's third layer, smooth as a vacuumed ice-skating rink What has she done? In the bathroom, like what happened
to the mistakenly flushed-away bracelet, a gift from her first boyfriend—the gold clasp unhooking as she wiped herself, then, moments too late, noticing her naked wrist under the running water of the restroom sink's faucet ... She's learned it's best to wait ten minutes to make herself throw up. Digestion begins at this point, but the food hasn't gotten very far. As ingenious as the first few times she would consciously masturbate, making note of where her fingers felt best, she devises a way to vomit that only hurts for a second.
She takes off her sweatshirt and drapes it over a towel rack. Then she pokes a Q-tip on her soft palate. Keeping in mind the diagram in her voice class, the cross section of the mouth showing each parts different function, the palate—hidden and secret as a clitoris. The teacher's mentioning of its vulnerability, split-second and nonchalant like a doctor and his tongue depressor. It's a fast prayer—she kneels in front of the toilet. Her back jerks and arches the way it might if she were moving her body to meet a man's during intercourse. She wipes what has sprayed back to her chest, her throat as raw as a rape that's happened to someone else. She cleans the seat of the bowl with a rag, and cleans her teeth with a second toothbrush she keeps for this purpose. Her sweatshirt back on, she goes to the kitchen to crush the cake box into a plastic garbage bag. And leaves to dispose of it, not in the trash can downstairs, but in a dumpster way on the other side of town.

Reminded of My Biological Clock—While
Looking at Georgia O'Keeffe's Pelvis One

    (Pelvis with Blue, 1944)

I see so many things, a primitive ring, a nest with a fallen-out bottom, a white rubber band snapped into blue. But mostly it's real memory and the doctor holding up my X-ray to the screen of light, a mini drive-in. The bone was mine—big, oblong and intact, even though my skin was purple, my muscles sore. I'd fallen off of Matthew's ten speed. There were whispers that my hymen was probably gone, first broken by the crossbar that separates a boy's bike from a girl's, rather than by Matthew himself. And now the X-rays were showing my ready pelvis, an empty hammock, just waiting for a sticky fetus sucking its thumb. "It's beautiful," the doctor said admiring my illuminated centerfold skeleton before he turned to me, the real—and therefore less interesting—thing, He smiled: "You have the perfect hipbones, miss, for carrying babies." To my mother he said, "If everything else inside her is OK, someday she'll be in labor for no more than an hour." I was thirteen and I wanted no baby, only a boyfriend, only some petting. I wasn't even sure how I felt about tongues. My favorite game was swimming deep underwater, kicking through a tent of spread legs, scissoring my thighs in short quick ups and downs so I wouldn't lose by booting someone in the crotch. "But I don't want a baby; I might have said aloud. My bone was a whorl in an X-ray-gray storm. My disembodied pelvis, like a melted Hula Hoop.
"The women in our family are all Fertile Myrtles," my mother explained later. "When I got pregnant with you, I think I was just looking at your father," she said as emphatically as if she were telling me the truth. So I found out how to get a diaphragm and pills and foams and condoms and used them all at once, memorizing the percentages of their individual effectiveness: 80, 82, 89.5. "I'm pregnant, I just know it," I would panic every month. Exasperated, my first real boyfriend would remind me, "Impossible. We didn't even have intercourse last month. Remember? You were too nervous." In the meantime, my girlfriends, one by one, skipped their periods. There were trips for abortions or quick marriages. One young mother left high school to become a cashier at the Stop & Shop. While she was still nursing, she leaked milk through her shirt and smock, leaving something like a perspiration spot every time a baby cried in her line. This wasn't for me, though I felt guilty, my pelvis being the right shape and all. My mother watched her talk shows, sometimes on the topic of childless women, and muttered, "How can those career ladies be so selfish? If they don't have babies now, they'll grow old and die alone." Sometimes in my dreams I'm back on Matthew's bike, not falling this time, but riding off into the orange-cowboy sunset. Other times, though, a crown of thorns sprouts in my belly— my nightmare grows dark It is always daylight around Georgia's Pelvises. The sky is the blue that the child she might have had might have seen when he was first born. Sometimes I dream bluebirds land on my hipbone as though I were a round limb on a desert tree. I feed them anything they desire. Then the mother birds feed their youngsters, and I tell them they can stay as long as they like.

Excerpted from Queen for a Day by Denise Duhamel. Copyright © 2001 by Denise Duhamel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Mr. Donut 3
Sometimes the First Boys Don't Count 4
Bulimia 5
Reminded of My Biological Clock - While Looking at Georgia O'Keeffe's Pelvis One 7
From Lorca's Deli, New York City 10
What Happened This Week 11
Four Hours 13
David Lemieux 14
Fear on 11th Street and Avenue A, New York City 16
For the One Man Who Likes My Things 17
Him-Whose-Penis-Never-Slept 21
The Hollow Men 22
Vagina 23
The Raping of the Sun 25
The Woman with Two Vaginas 26
My Grandmother Is My Husband 28
When I Was a Lesbian 33
Making Money 34
From the Shore 36
How to Help Children through Wartime 38
Summer 39
Whole 40
Feminism 41
How the Sky Fell 45
Blue Beard's One-Hundredth Wife 46
The Ugly Stepsister 48
One Afternoon when Barbie Wanted to Join the Military 53
Bisexual Barbie 55
Oriental Barbie 56
Kinky 57
Barbie's GYN Appointment 58
Marriage 59
Barbie Joins a Twelve Step Program 60
Barbie as Religious Fanatic 62
Literary Barbie 64
The Limited Edition Platinum Barbie 65
June 13, 1995 69
Cockroaches 71
How Much Is This Poem Going to Cost Me? 73
Sex with a Famous Poet 75
The Difference between Pepsi and Pope 77
Yes 79
Bangungot 81
Nick at Nite 82
Playa Naturista 83
Mia and Darger, Ashbery and Gina 89
Ego 94
Superego 95
Id 99
Acknowledgments 105
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