Denise Duhamel is a poet whose work, while widely published, will probably not receive as much acclaim as it might . . .
Compare her to her contemporaries who have won Pulitzers and other such awards . . . the difference is that Duhamel, unlike, for example, Claudia Emerson, Franz Wright, and Natasha Trethewey, has made the "mistake" of writing poems in the comic mode.
I mention these three Pulitzer poets not to question the quality of their work—each of them has written poetry which deserves prize honors—
but to place in contrast Duhamel, who is also worthy of attention and respect and official laurels. Yet—
she has committed the one error most USA poets know to avoid.
Because you know—you all know—if you wanna win the prizes, you gotta be Ser-i-ous.
Here's an early Duhamel poem I've admired since its publication in 1996. She has moved on from this kind of writing into other more experimental modes, but here's one I hope she won't leave out of her Selected when her publisher Pitt does it: this comes from a section of poems about her mother, all of which I like, in the book entitled "Girl Soldier"—maybe it loses something out of that context—:
FROM THE SHORE
Michele and I pull out our feet from the mud, and begin
to scream from a new spot. We think you are going to drown.
You won't look back as you swim to the middle of the ocean.
"But Ma!" we call. Chills through our arms, down
through our legs as though we've been struck still by lightning
and no one will touch us. We're afraid to touch each other.
If only we could jump out past our bodies, the small ones
you had to lift up when the waves come. Michele and I clung
to your sides and still got mouthfuls of salt water.
Had we dragged mud from the sand castle to the blanket
or sung too loud or fought with each other? The foam
like thrown toys breaking at our feet, unsteadying us.
At sunset, the family beach mostly cleared,
a lady with red veins on her legs and a bathing suit with a skirt
stops to help us. We point you out, the only mother
in the lineup. Your face, a small craft at the point where water
meets choppy sky. The lady says it's about to rain
and starts yelling with us, demanding you get back on shore
to take care of your daughters. I know we've made a mistake
as you turn around and see Michele and me with this other adult.
All the ocean goes silent—the sea sounds, the gulls.
It's like watching TV with the sound turned off.
You rise from the water like a wet monster and the lady,
in a rage, begins to yell and I guess you yell back:
my ears are murmuring a quiet that's louder.
I vow never to tell on anyone again—if ever I see a kid hitting
another kid, if ever I see someone robbing a bank.
My whole body shakes, the sound inside a seashell.
You yank Michele's arm and mine, saying,
"Can't I have one goddamn minute alone?"
Maybe it's not a great poem, but it's one I've read dozens of times with pleasure and responsive gratitude.
Duhamel was one of the poets I used to xerox for my writing classes, urging them to emulate her.
Allison Joseph was another, and Laura Kasischke . . . Daisy Fried. Lots of others, but these names come to mind. Each of them seems to write out of their quotidian, with great presentational skills, scene-creation-in-depth, and with vivid imagery of detail.
"Write like they do," I would urge the students, neglecting to add that I myself couldn't do it.
"From the Shore" is what a narrative poem should be, in my opinion. Its clarity and focus and intimacy of emotion are exemplary.