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Denise Duhamel

The New York School Diaspora, Part One (Denise Duhamel) [by Angela Ball]


I know you are only trying to make

white people feel better—

and some of us might even appreciate it,

but maybe it’s good you sometimes let us remember

certain things, like the origin of gratuities.

Racist restaurant owners “hired” newly freed

slaves who they didn’t have to pay

and passed on the expense to diners

who had the choice of tipping

or not. Any American waitstaff or stripper  

today knows how temperamental

a customer can be—how grabby, how angry,

or sullen. How cheap. By 1938,

America established a minimum

wage, but not for hospitality

workers who were expected to live

off tips. (Translation: Ladies,

shake those tits.) The Great Depression

and Great Recession seem quaint and faraway

because you prefer we deep-six the fact

Wall Street hasn’t changed. But, Amnesia,

sometimes even you can’t repress

everything in us—consider our American paranoia

and guilt. Chomsky says zombies

are just the latest manifestation of our need

to be punished for what we’ve done

to the Indians and slaves. How easy it is

to make white Americans afraid. Afraid we’ll be

treated the way we’ve treated others. Jen Hofer asks,

through which holes does history break into our day?

Who built the White House?

Why are corporate cubicles shaped

like swastikas? Why are there so few

Asian leading men? When the 60’s           

revolution happened, women turned

to vintage clothing so fashion magazines had to

do something to control them, get them back.

Enter diet pills and the term cellulite. Rubens

celebrated those bumps in his 17th century paintings,

but a 1968 issue of Vogue decried them  

as a disease the most focused of women could cure

through exercise, diet, and rubbing their legs

with special rolling pins. Now the wage gap   

is replaced by the thigh gap,

as we try to squelch

that persistent subcutaneous fat,

bubbling up like everything, Amnesia,

you’d rather we forget.

I wrote “Dear American Amnesia” after reading Rachel E. Greenspan’s article “’It's the Legacy of Slavery’: Here's the Troubling History Behind Tipping Practices in the U.S.” (Time, October 15, 2018).  I remembered all my waitressing jobs, the lousy shifts, the fussy customers, and my smiling incessantly even when I wanted to pour coffee over the head of a customer who grabbed me as I walked by his table. The poem started down that path but suddenly veered into bigger questions of who America values in society, who we pay well, who we pay poorly, and why.

--Denise Duhamel

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Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021). Her other titles include Scald; Blowout; Ka-Ching!Two and TwoQueen for a Day: Selected and New Poems; The Star-Spangled Banner; and Kinky. She served as the guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2013. She is a Distinguished University Professor in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.

The New York School Diaspora Part One: Denise Duhamel

I have long believed that the poets of the New York School, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler, have exercised a lingering and salutary influence on American poetry. This conviction led to a 2014 Symposium at the University of Southern Mississippi, “ The New York School of Poetry and the South,” featuring Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, Barbara Hamby, David Kirby, and David Lehman, and a special issue of Valley Voices, a literary journal based at Mississippi Valley State University. In this blog post and others to follow I will showcase what I term the New York School diaspora, a concept that I hope to make clear with poems by writers who honor the virtues of play, wit, the chaos of reality and the belief that, to paraphrase Frank O’Hara, life is too important to strangle with seriousness

“Dear American Amnesia,” part of Denise Duhamel’s topical and captivating new book of poems, Second Story, owes something to Kenneth Koch’s ground-breaking reformulation of the apostrophe: a poem addressed to an abstract entity or quality. Koch’s progenitor here is, of course, one of his first poetic saints, Percy Bysshe Shelly. Koch’s departure from his source resides in the degree of intimacy he assumes, an easy colloquialism both humorous and poignant. Koch perfects this technique in his 2000 volume, New Addresses, with poems like “To World War Two,” that begins with “Early on you introduced me to young women in bars,” progresses to “As machines make ice / we made dead enemy soldiers . . .” and ends, “You died of a bomb blast in Nagasaki, and there were parades.” Koch had never before written a poem about his WWII experiences, but the impersonally personal nature of his new address created an expansive context that made it possible. By addressing abstraction in “Dear American Amnesia,” Duhamel isolates the obliviousness of our dominant culture, defining it by what it chooses to ignore. 

Duhamel’s poem addresses the gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be: a gap obscured by miasmas of amnesia. Not only does this approach produce humor—“(Translation: Ladies, /shake those tits.)”—but frees the poem from the tediousness of assigning blame to particular people. We are both victims and enablers of such notions as “the thigh gap.” 

In pointing out some of the affinities of “Dear American Amnesia” with The New York School of Poets, I don’t mean to suggest that the poem is derivative. Duhamel’s letter poem joins what Wallace Stevens called “the long conversation between poets” bearing its own inimitable stamp.

--Angela Ball

April 21, 2021

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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