Blowout (2013) by Denise Duhamel
review by Marina Buckler, Reference Librarian
Have you ever had one of those days where nothing goes according to plan? Where there seems to be no end in sight? How about one of those years? Denise Duhamel has, and her latest collection, Blowout, describes that year in excruciating detail.
The collection begins with the decline and downfall of Duhamel’s marriage; the opening poem is an account of she and her husband witnessing an argument between another couple on the beach. As they banter and guess, the discussion quickly escalates into their own argument, an illumination of their own issues. In the next poem, she describes folding laundry while listening to daytime television, and we learn that, 10 days after listening to a television segment in which she learns that “a relationship is over / when one of the parties shoots a look of contempt at the other,” her husband has left, and several poems later, in “Tina and the Bruised Hearts,” the reader witnesses the unauthorized draining of Duhamel’s bank account by her now-estranged husband, looped with a panic regarding overdraft fees, and the unexpected camaraderie we sometimes find when we are humbled and forced to ask for help.
In the poem immediately following “Tina and the Bruised Hearts,” the reader learns that Duhamel’s father has died; that her apartment flooded; that she’s lost her job. Her disappointment and sorrow are, even only seven pages in to the first section, tangible. She hides nothing, seemingly–all of the embarrassment and subsequent shame are loaded in with moments where Duhamel tries to digest a lesson, and loses it. She writes, in “Takeout, 2008”:
My sister, my brother-in-law, and I order Chinese takeout
on New Year’s Eve and my fortune reads
“You have to accept loss to win.” This makes me almost hopeful–
and maybe, for a moment, even gives me a way
to make sense out of 2008. I am going to keep this fortune, I think,
but then promptly, accidentally, throw it in the trash.
She feels pretty bad for herself, admittedly–or maybe she just feels pretty bad, hopeless in a way that is new to her. She’s powerless over these events, and struggles to bring herself out of it. Again, in “Takeout, 2008,” Duhamel reminds us that she’s able to suffer, but that she’s not suffering blankly–she is simultaneously observing that suffering, participating in her pain but also producing from it, and finding a way to live. She writes,
Did I tell you this year I have gotten on my knees
and prayed for grace and peace of mind to get through the next hour?
I know there are people with missing children, not missing husbands.
I had my father 47 long years. There are people without a place
to sleep tonight. I know that.
It’s difficult to imagine a year quite like Duhamel’s–admittedly not the worst year on record, but riddled with the types of ego blows that can be difficult to recover from. But she continues. She writes. And it is as though she is singing to herself, reassuring herself. Undoubtedly, Duhamel is suffering a great deal, but she is also making a choice to ask for grace and peace of mind, to summon the strength to continue. And in this context, one can read Blowout as a love letter.
Throughout, Duhamel writes with a style that is pithy and referential, rich with context, self-aware, and cultural (one poem parallels Duhamel’s divorce and Madonna’s, others are descriptions of movies about divorce). The collection as a whole is practiced and brave, naked and confessional, and in those things, human. Blowout is, at many points, uncomfortable to read for how bare the narrative is. But, in the discomfort it causes, it is also oddly comforting. “Look,” she seems to say, from the safe distance she’s gained, “I’ve done it. Here is the proof. You hold it in your hands.”
And she has. As the book progresses, it becomes much less about the sort of visceral pain the reader had grown accustomed to watching Duhamel work through in the first section. The collections grows into something funny and awkward, with poems about very early experiences with the opposite sex titled “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” and “Lower East Side Boyfriend.” It even includes poems about historically significant events, like “Cleopatra Invented the First Vibrator.” In fact, by the end, the collection isn’t just metaphorically a love letter–it is actually full-blown, with the last several poems in the book about Duhamel’s new love interest, cycling back through, reemerging with heart open again, practiced. And brave.