on May 18, 2011
The cover of Denise Duhamel's fourth collection of poetry shows a bloated Barbie, surrounded by sweets and balancing precariously on impossibly tiny high-heeled feet. Artist Bob Dahm's cover is admittedly humorous and undeniably cute, although body dysmorphia is only a small issue among the many that Duhamel attacks successfully through the use of persona poems featuring America's favorite beauty icon. This illustration captures Barbie's freakish dimensions and accentuate how cartoonish a regular Barbie doll is without an artist's manipulations. While Kinky is certainly an attention-getting title, sexuality again is just a tiny facet of the breadth of Barbie's issues.
Denise Duhamel takes the reader on a journey through a wild array of Barbies by going into her many issues including love, body image, self worth, sexuality, race, self image, careers, and faith just to name a few. Sections are organized by Barbie's makeup. In Lipstick, Duhamel concentrates on race relations, how we treat minorities, various ethnicities and politics. Powder Blush gets a little into sexuality but is really more about relationships and major life events. The Mascara section covers body issues, reproduction and the importance we place on fashion over so many other more important things. In Eye Shadow, Duhamel takes us soul-searching with Barbie, and gets into her philosophy and faith.
Through the use of a cultural phenomena like Barbie, Duhamel's poetry appeals to a broad range of readers, literary and less so. Barbie is iconic and she has been marketed as everything from the all-American cheerleader to a veterinarian, a flight attendant and a pilot, and she's had editions in several ethnicities and as characters from several films. Mattel's Barbie has always been sunshine and rainbows, while Duhamel's Barbies walk a decidedly darker avenue. Duhamel's Barbies are apocalyptic and bisexual, are Beatniks and hippies, and go to therapy.
Make no mistake, this is a fine collection of poetry that shows originality and insight. Her work is clearly publishable-quality. While Duhamel uses Barbie as her vehicle, she avoids cliches and is a master of condensed language. Stephen Dobyns would say that she uses, "the best words in the best order," but Duhamel has done so much more than that. Her poetry is meant to be heard aloud as she has paid attention to rhythm, pausing, imagery and metaphor. Through a fresh take on an American icon, Duhamel's imagination comes into play as she tackles Barbie's various potential real-life issues. In the grand conversation that poetry strives to achieve, she has upped the ante of what contemporary poetry can be - witty, sarcastic, and painfully true.
The language of Kinky shows Duhamel's mastery of tone and diction, but also how she pays attention to language and how the poem sounds aloud. In "Manifest Destiny" from the Lipstick section:
In the Philippines
women workers in fashion doll factories
are given cash incentives
for sterilization. Body parts roll
too fast on conveyor belts...
these women package Toys "R" Us uteruses...
Duhamel lays and layers her lines like thoughts gathering before a realization, allowing the reader to come to the same conclusion on their own without being spoon-fed the concept she's trying to get across. Alliteration and consonance play out in Philippines fashion factories and Toys "R" Us uteruses. Her deft use of rhythm and space encourage the reader to think for themselves.
In "Bisexual Barbie" from the Powder Blush section, Duhamel's intuition asks the question that's on everyone's mind. She imagines that Barbie is real, living and breathing, and applies real world statistics to an icon that defies the social norms.
One of ten Barbies is left-handed,
another ten percent are lesbian.
But it's hard to keep track of the bisexual ones -
their orientation often secret, or if overt,
still undetectable. Barbies often dress in front of one another
and staticians think nothing of it.
Two Barbies often share a sleeping bag or double bed
because there are twice as many Barbies as Kens.
It is true that in Barbie's universe the social norms are all off. The first thing most young girls will do when they get their hands on a Barbie is take off the doll's clothes. We are fed the story that Barbie is all American, the perfect woman, beautiful, straight, fashionable, and career-minded but loves her man. Duhamel pushes the reader to question the underbelly of Barbie's lifestyle in a way that is both witty and uses common sense.
Denise Duhamel continues the conversation of poetry with "Beatnik Barbie" in the Mascara section where Beat poetry left off. Historically the Beats were the first major innovators to the form of poetry, with William S. Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg leading the way. Here we discover that Barbie is physically unable to get down with the Beats, try as she might.
But she hadn't the veins for heroin,
the lungs for pot, the rhythm for jazz.
She preferred glamor to Ginsberg,
fashion to Ferlinghetti,
winsome beauty to William Burroughs.
As contemporary and forward-thinking as Barbie tries to be, she's won over by the superficial. Even were Barbie physically capable of going barefoot on her "tip-toed feet", or to snap her "Venetian blind" fingers, she doesn't have the intellect or motivation to really get deep and meaningful with the rest of the Beats. Even though "Beatnik Barbie" explores the past, the theme of apathy and superficiality is right on track with what's transpiring across America today.
The publishability of Duhamel's Kinky comes full circle with "Barbie's Final Trip to Therapy" in the Eye Shadow section. Duhamel has now exhausted all of the directions Barbie could go. Barbie has reached out to philosophy, attended a twelve-step program, taken various stabs at religion and faith, and has done much of the tough work involved in therapy. On her way to the afterlife, she takes a final trip to therapy and the language is succinct and rich.
as the first day she was made in the factory,
as naked as Eve, as Lady Godiva, as naked as Jane
when she took off her animal skins
to escape the jungle and her bad marriage with Tarzan.
Barbie is as vulnerable as Cinderella
in that split second between her dissolving rags
and the instant gown her Fairy God Mother bestowed her.
At this point Duhamel has stripped Barbie down, both physically and emotionally. The reader now has complete sympathy with Barbie by now and aches with the same vulnerability. Duhamel has taken the reader on a journey with Barbie, and what started off a humorous and clever has now become a bridge to revelations that strike at the very nature of what it is to be a woman not only in America, but in the world. She has demonstrated with great flourish that she wields words with the dexterity of a seamstress and the strength of a lumberjack. Of Kinky, Renee Thomas called it, "A masterful tongue-in-cheek collection of poetry that rejects double standards and oppression as it pertains to women in a quirky original style using the iconographic Barbie doll." Denise Duhamel deserves every accolade.
on September 22, 2014
I read this book at Manhattan College as part of a poetry class taught by poet Nick Carbo in 1997. We were all so wet behind the ears back then, and I was living as a monk in a religious order. Talk about culture shock as I read this fabulous book!
One of the poems is called Sister Barbie, and it imagines Barbie as if she were a nun. Well, I loaned the book to a classmate who was reading this poem out on the Quad, when a bird flew over and crapped right on the page! "It's a sign from above!" he laughed as he returned my book to me. I laughed nervously in response, but just a few weeks later, I left the religious order after four years as Brother Sean. Moral of the story? Kinky is one powerful book!
Someone stole my copy a few years ago, so I just bought myself another, and I'm not letting Barbie out of my sight now! Want to read Sister Barbie and all the other incredible poems in this collection? Well, you can't have my copy--so buy your own now!
on May 7, 2016
Denise Duhamel breaks open Mattel's Barbie: the toy, the icon, the impossibly-proportioned, the trapped in a box of race, gender, and beauty. I find myself sympathizing with her for the first time, as she visits her therapist to work on her issues. Duhamel's verse is frank, humorous, playful, and undecorated, and never loses sight of the true hard stakes underneath this singular obsession. I trust this voice.
on August 17, 2013
Since her birth in 1959, Barbie has embodied our 20th century hopes and aspirations--a perfect body, perfect house, perfect partner, perfect clothes, perfect vacations. Barbie has everything that we want, everything that we desire for our happiness. When little girls play with Barbie, they imagine themselves living happily in her pink plastic paradise. No suffering is possible in her world because everything is beautiful and unchanging.
But there is a downside to perfection, a trade-off for happiness. Duhamel imagines life as Barbie, and illuminates the darkness and hidden suffering behind her plastic veneer. Barbie's cannot bend her joints. She lacks nipples and a clitoris, therefore, she cannot feel sexual pleasure. She cannot menstruate or give birth. She cannot eat the foods prepared in her dream kitchen. Her partner is a passionless mannequin without a penis who turns out to be her brother. She has no choice of another. She smiles perpetually only because she cannot move her facial features. She suffers the abuse of "little boys poking their sticky fingers between her legs; pet dogs gnawing on her hands." Her fate is determined by her physique and she is not able to feel. She goes to therapy because she is so frustrated, but because she has no tear ducts, cannot shed tears.
In these brave, imaginative, conversational, funny and wise poems, it turns out that what Barbie really longs for is to be human. Because "no one could love something as flawless as Barbie." She "dreams of dexterity and crying." In "Literary Barbie," she imagines herself
under the stars, in a field of wet grass. She looks
like someone she doesn't know---a chubby girl
with problem skin and thick glasses. There is a hand
her own or someone else's, between her legs
and she feels the beginnings of something
she's never felt before.
More than an excursion into pop culture, Duhamel's Kinky expresses compassion for those who live constrained by the expectations of our society, one in which women are expected to look perfect and always cheerful, where we undergo plastic surgery to look the same version of beautiful. In the process she offers enormous compassion for our real selves in all our imperfect, disabled, mortal, and emotionally messy manifestations. Because even though our existences are full of pain and suffering, we at least have the privilege to feel and the power to choose our own fates, whereas Barbie, "half victim, half little pink soldier", is only able to smile and "wishes she could experience the curse at least once."