As I have mentioned in previous posts one goal of this blog is to promote and encourage people to read contemporary poetry. Sadly, I haven't gotten to read as much as I would like to in the last few months. Most of my free time I have devoted to writing new work and submitting it. But a few weeks ago I bought some new poetry books, which I have been enjoying and plan to write about in this blog.
The first of these is Denise Duhamel's latest book Ka-Ching!. I will admit this is the first book by Duhamel I've ever read. I read lots of contemporary writers but have somehow never gotten my hands on a full book by her. That's not to say I've never read her work. I've read lots of it in magazines and journals and knew from those published works that I would enjoy her poems.
She writes "ultra-talk" poems, which I tend to write myself and most of my favorite poets do as well. If you don't know what "ultra-talk" poems are let me explain. The term was actually coined in 2002 by Mark Halliday. He coined the term to describe David Kirby's poems. If you don't know Kirby you should. He's an amazing poet and served on my thesis committee at FSU (so I'm slightly biased). But seriously he's amazing. One of his more recent books was nominated for the National Book Award. He's an excellent poet, teacher, and all around nice guy, which is hard to find. Anyway Kirby, like Duhamel writes very talkative poems that weave and blend various topics together. They often include pieces of pop culture, news, books, and personal stories. The poems are often on the longer side (especially Kirby's) and typically have humor in them but can be very dark poems underneath it all.
In Ka-Ching! Duhamel creates a world where everything is based on chance, luck, fate, whatever you might want to call it. The book holds together through this concept of gambling. The first section of the book is called "Play Money" and the poems are printed as if they are on play money. You have to literally turn the book on its side to read them and each is titled with a dollar amount. This act of turning the book is fantastic. It is a way to get the reader into this world, to alert us that what is to come is not your typical book of poems, and we are immediately sucked in to it. The first section gives us hints of what is to come and really sets up this idea of chance.
Many of the poems stand out. One of my favorites is "Lucky Me." A long narrative about the ups and downs of the writing world. The idea that being a poet might not be good enough. The poem begins with the line "For a while I hated myself for not making it in prose." Again the idea of money comes into play. Everyone knows there is no money in poetry, no movie rights, no bestselling novel. This poem is playful, yet touches on what is amazing about being a poet and I'm always a sucker for poems about poetry and this one delivers.
Other stand out poems include one about Sean Penn entitled "Delta Flight 659," a wonderfully rich poem called "Apple," and the politically charged "Sipping Cafe con Leche Where the Bombs Fell." This last one shows the amazing ability Duhamel has in weaving pieces together. The poem contains so much and yet it all falls into place.
But Ka-Ching! doesn't stop there. The strongest part of this collection is the very interconnected series of poems that deal with a freak accident on a escalator in Atlantic City. The accident is hinted at in various poems but the section entitled "One-Armed Bandits" dives deeply into it. The accident involves the speaker's parents who get seriously injured in a 14 person pile-up on an escalator. The most horrific part is that the mother's hair gets caught and she is nearly scalped by the escalator. These horrific events make way for deeply moving poems that consider the idea of chance of what it means to be involved in what others call a "freak accident." It also dives into how one moves on from that and the holes of our legal system. These aren't easy poems to read. In fact they are very difficult. As the speaker cares for her wounded parents you are placed in that room with her.
Ka-Ching! is so carefully put together. It hooks you with play money, with hints at something darker, yet keeps you on your toes with completely humorous poems like "The Language Police" or "The Da Vinci Poke." Then it hits you over the head when you least expect it. The reader is the true winner at the end, though you might never ride an escalator again.