Forty-three Ways to Play with Barbie

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

For over fifty years, the Barbie fashion doll has been put in the hands of millions of little girls and over time, the doll has become a pop icon that has sparked controversy. Barbie is sometimes charged with promoting an unrealistic standard for beauty, but over the years, she has also inspired many creative works. In Denise Duhamel’s collection of poetry entitled, Kinky, the doll is used in parody. What works about this collection besides its obvious cleverness, is that it gives the reader a myriad of vantage points on the same subject. All forty-three poems connect to Barbie, but each takes you in a different direction to contemplate the history, associations, and implications of what was intended to be simply a teenage fashion doll.
The collection is divided into four parts: Lipstick, Powder Blush, Mascara, and Eye shadow, representing all the things needed to keep Barbie’s face and image beautiful. In the first part, there are poems focused mostly on the cultural history of the doll. Duhamel pokes fun at Mattel’s attempt at cultural and ethnic sensitivity. In “Hispanic Barbie”, she writes: “Born in 1980, Hispanic Barbie looks exactly like Black or White Barbie. You can pretend she’s Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Columbian, Chilean, or Venezuelan. ..” My favorite poem, “Native American Barbie,” is a one-line poem that acts as a punch line: “There is only one of her left.”
The title poem, “Kinky” begins with Barbie and Ken switching heads in an attempt to “spice-up” their relationship. All the poems are free verse. Some employ dialogue while others employ narration. She uses specific details and word play to bridge the real world to Barbie’s imaginary one. Other titles include: “Anti-Christ Barbie”, “Buddhist Barbie”, “Literary Barbie”, “Barbie’s Molester”, and “Afterlife Barbie.”
In this collection, Duhamel does a comedic critique of society. She uses Barbie to cover topics such as sexism, feminism, racism, war, love, sex, exploitation, and religion. Her cleverness with subject matter and language can lend to deep contemplation and discussion, while other poems are just laugh-out-loud funny. Yet, the truth of her observations can be arresting, especially in poems like, “Manifest Barbie” where you learn:
In the Philippines
Women workers in fashion doll factories
Are given cash incentives
For sterilization

Facts like these are hard to swallow, so Duhamel makes sure to add humor. Satire works here along with every other connection to the doll and her well-known moveable and detachable parts. After reading this book, it will be impossible to look at the Barbie doll the same.
Duhamel, Denise, Kinky. Alexandria Virginia: Orchises Press: 1997.

“Words that burn”: Honesty in Denise Duhamel’s Blowout

I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of a lot of what is considered confessional or post-confessional poetry. Many times, it seems the poet is simply using poetry as a venue to publicly confess rather than trying to create art. This is most definitely not the case in Denise Duhamel’s new book Blowout. With grace and brutal honesty, Duhamel writes about the slow, agonizing death of a marriage, the joyous discovery of new love, and the points in-between when it seems that nothing good will ever happen again. Duhamel’s readers are invited in to the intimate world of the speaker, and there, they recognize themselves.

In “A Different Story,” Duhamel describes discussing the writing process with a friend over a meal. The friend thinks that what writers do, steal other people’s stories and make them their own, is creepy. She states, “Imagine how you’d feel / if someone re-created your life and it wasn’t very pretty” (44). The speaker’s response is to “start to write the poem in my head, the one / describing  my blubber, my crowded teeth, my penchant / for gossip, the smell of my feet after a long day / in pastil sandals. My character is cheap, / fearful, controlling, duplicitous, a dunce” (45). The speaker immediately leaves the restaurant to “get it all down before someone else does” (45). It is this kind of honesty in creating the speaker that makes each of these poems personal to the reader. It makes us think, what would someone write about me? What would I be willing to write about me?

The speaker’s experiences with the end of her marriage are almost too painful to read, but they do not dwell on themselves. In “Mack,” we find that the husband has racked up a fifty dollar bill for watching porn, fifty dollars that they do not have. Besides that, the reader knows from reading “Madonna and Me” that any money the couple has has been earned by the speaker. The husband is unemployed. As heinous as this is, when the speaker is nearly run over by a Mack truck because she is so upset, we forgive her for “wishing my husband would kiss me for twenty / minutes straight because, if he did, I knew I’d forgive him” (13). The speaker reminds us that there was a beginning to this end. At some point, kissing her husband was romantic and exciting.

The reminder that bad endings often have wonderful beginnings is reinforced in “Old Love Poems.” The speaker uses the celebrity marriage break-up between James Taylor and Carly Simon to make her point. “How could they part / having written those love songs? And how could they go on / singing those love songs after the divorce?” (58). The speaker had written love poems about her now ex-husband, and those poems “are on shelves / in libraries and in people’s homes” (58). Published poems don’t go away. Someone, somewhere might, at any given point, be reading a love poem written to a husband who turned out to be someone “whose body left an imprint on the couch / like a chalk outline at a crime scene” (10). The reader recognizes the unstoppable spirit present in a speaker who can still be “grateful” for those poems, for those moments.

The same speaker who, in the end, falls so deeply for a new love that she writes an “Ode to Your Eyebrows” has had to feel the particular emptiness of a cold marriage bed: “The year before he left / we avoided being awake in bed / at the same time and, when we were, / we lay on our backs hoping the other would take over” (69). The same speaker who can once again write a love poem “Having a Diet Coke with You” once felt this way: “I remember crying at the spa during my scalp massage / the masseuse’s hands were so tender I sniveled into the sheet / she explained that this sort of outburst happened a lot / to women who weren’t used to being touched with kindness” (87). 

Poet Thomas Gray wrote: “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” Denise Duhamel’s Blowout, while definitely personal, resonates with the reader. These poems live and breathe. In their honesty, they burn their way into the reader and say, no matter what, there is always hope.

Duhamel, Denise. Blowout. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2013.