Dealing with Disaster in “Second Story”

William Carlos Williams famously wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” In her latest collection, Second Story, Denise Duhamel proves up to the challenge of delivering such news. She writes movingly of Rodney King and gun violence, white privilege and aging, and Donald Trump and Covid-19. In “Terza Irma,” she tackles what it was like to live in Florida during Hurricane Irma. Terza rima is just one of the forms Duhamel uses in Second Story. As in numerous other collections, Second Story again showcases her adeptness at free verse, prose poems, pantoums, and sestinas. She even offers her own version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “I saw the best minds of my generation (i.e. Fauci, Birx) undermined…” While this collection is certainly of its time, Duhamel’s greatest accomplishment lies in her artfulness, which promises that these poems will endure long after the events depicted in them have faded from the headlines.

In “Pandemic Pantoum,” Duhamel responds to the curtailing of activities, medical and otherwise, that has occurred in the past year by asking, “What is essential? What isn’t?” The answers to these questions, in many different guises, serve as guiding principles for the collection. For instance, “Dear American Amnesia” argues that although “you are only trying to make / white people feel better / […] maybe it’s good you sometimes let us remember” the racism that pervades our history. For, “How easy it is / to make white Americans afraid. Afraid we’ll be / treated the way we’ve treated others.” Sadly, white America is too often distracted from these real concerns:

                                    Now the wage gap

is replaced by the thigh gap,

as we try to squelch

that persistent subcutaneous fat,

bubbling up like everything, Amnesia,

you’d rather we forget.

Trivialities such as “the thigh gap” allow white America to avoid the difficult yet essential questions that the poet of “Pandemic Pantoum” would want us to confront head-on.

Wilfred Owen’s “The Unreturning” serves as the model for Duhamel’s “The Unreturning, 2019.” But where Owen focused on challenging religious dogma, Duhamel adapts his lines to craft a poem about racism in America. As a result, Owen’s “Suddenly night crushed out the day” becomes “Suddenly cops crushed black citizens.” Most notably Duhamel takes sentiments such as William Carlos Williams’s to task when she writes, “On CNN I watched, tried to be woke. / Each one whom Life exiled I named and called. / But dumb Poetry did nothing. Enthralled / With Justice, I was naïve when I spoke.” This is not the lofty belief that “men die miserably every day” without the consolations of poetry. Instead, Duhamel critiques poets for retiring inside their lines, for failing to act on their performative “wokeness”: “I made sure my door was bolted and chained.”

The centerpiece of this collection is sure to be “Terza Irma,” thirty pages of rhymed tercets that explore the two weeks surrounding Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Duhamel tracks her attitude toward the impending disaster, moving from nonchalance to acknowledging, “it will take six months to compile // a roster of workers to bestow / upon me new walls, windows, ceilings.” The damage is so extensive that “A / plunk from my faucet makes me afraid” even after the storm has passed. Along the way, she realizes, “If I’m forced to begin // again, I’ll have to cope, unfettered / by snapshots, baubles, and magazines.” No matter her preparations, she comes “face-to-face / with unknowing.”

While the uncertainty before Irma makes each resident “a fortune teller — // predicting this heightened emotion’s / for nothing. Or asserting it’s ‘end / times,’” the aftermath leaves Duhamel “flush // with angst or rage, a feelings-crossfire / I can’t quite name.” Duhamel also captures the way mundane tasks take on significance in times of duress: waiting in a long line at a gas station or observing a friend’s attempt to establish normalcy through preparing an elaborate meal. Post-Irma, the poet is “a troubadour // singing of loss, no decent levee, / ringing out my pink Memory Foam / booties. Regret is my melody.” Regardless of their melodies, the poems in Second Story are sure to stand out among the many of Duhamel’s career.

Second Story
By Denise Duhamel
University of Pittsburgh Press
March 9, 2021