Poetry

“Yes,” by Denise Duhamel

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

First, what I’ve been calling “the MFA flyover.” This is a free-verse, single-stanza poem in 49 lines narrated by a first-person speaker. Its mode is narrative—it tells a story, and in it, we see a story’s elements: characters (the speaker and her husband) in conflict (trouble communicating) along an arc that sets up the problem, then resolves it in classic Freytag’s Pyramid fashion with the climax happening when the speaker briefly storms out of the poem. She comes back, they make up, and the rest is, as they say, dénouement. But, it’s poetic dénouement, and instead of things being tidily resolved at the poem’s end, a door is opened into another, larger room, one with lots of unresolved issues. I guess it is no surprise that the poem’s author, as noted here, grew up in a home rich in the storytelling tradition.

The poem opens with a reference to “culture shock.” The second line makes it clear that it’s an allusion to a book with those words in its title: Culture Shock! Philippines: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Marshall Cavendish 2007), “a survival guide for anyone living, working, or wanting to discover life in the Philippines.” Notice, though, how the author’s choice to break the line after “culture shock” broadens its frame of reference, allowing it to mean other things besides part of a book title. Before we get to the next line, “culture shock” embodies the dictionary definition of the term: the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. The line break lets the writer have it both ways, important since that more garden-variety notion of culture shock matters to the poem. In the manual, tourists experience culture shock when they visit the Philippines. In the poem, the American speaker experiences culture shock within her own marriage to a Filipino.

Other line breaks, for example after line 43’s “Her Asian features prove Christianity,” work much the same way. That line break allows the reader, for a moment, to entertain the notion that Asian features in and of themselves can “prove” something as abstract and vast as “Christianity” before the next line modifies the idea into something else entirely. The same thing happens in line 20. Giving the self-help book title (When I Say No I Feel Guilty) its own line briefly allows us to read it as a simple declaration made by the speaker and maybe offers a clue that she shares her husband’s reluctance to utter rude and unequivocal “no’s.”

I enjoyed the way this poem works. First, the speaker tells us that in her husband’s culture, the word “yes” can mean many things, including “–ish” (not so much), or even a frank “no.” After giving us the “rule” that “yes” can mean a number of things besides simple, pure affirmation, the speaker applies it to her own life, introducing domestic situations many readers will recognize and understand. When her husband says “yes” in response to a request to take out the trash, for example, the speaker wonders which “yes” does he mean—a, b, c, or d? Giving us a stock domestic situation—one most people can relate to—is a way of engaging the reader. Another is the use of sly (but never mean-spirited) humor that insinuates itself into the poem from the very beginning. I mean, really—a manual for avoiding culture shock—that’s pretty funny in and of itself.

After showing how the “rule” revealed in the etiquette book works out (or sometimes, as it happens, does not work out) in her own life, the speaker goes on to show how she tries to teach her husband how to say no—for the poem really is, in a way, about learning to say no without feeling guilty. He could read one of the many self-help books on the subject. He could consult with a therapist. This is all tongue-in-cheek, of course; such culturally-rooted habits are very tough to break. The husband makes this clear by responding with a simple and gloriously ambiguous “yes” when the speaker helpfully offers to buy him one of those self-help books. She doesn’t give up, though, and keeps telling him they both have to try to bridge what has become for her a communication impasse.

When pressed, the speaker’s husband “makes tampo,” a term defined by that Culture Shock manual as a very particular kind of “sulking,” one that can “quickly escalate into nagdadabog—foot stomping, grumbling, the slamming / of doors.” If you want to figure out the best way to incorporate non-English-language terms into your poems, readers, pay close attention here. These definitions are seamlessly incorporated into the narrative in a way that does not feel didactic or intrusive.

Another solution to this marital dilemma might be for the speaker herself to read the self-help books and seek the therapy she recommends, thus acquiring the strategies that would enable her to be okay with her husband’s ambiguous yeses. This is what happens, in a way. The husband continues to say yes in exactly the same way as before with exactly as much certainty and precision (that is to say, not very much), and then it is the speaker who succumbs to nagdadabog, “storm[ing] off / to talk to my porcelain Kwan Yin, / the Chinese goddess of mercy.”

Her husband’s response—engaging his wife in friendly conversation about the goddess—is interpreted by the speaker as an apology: “My husband’s telling me this / tells me he’s sorry.” See, readers? She is learning. In the terminology of conventional fiction, this character is showing development, growth, change. In trying to change her husband’s behavior, the speaker winds up doing something much more effective: changing her own response to it. She also learns to allow for the possibility that it is not necessarily a bad thing for words to mean other than what they literally say.

After the husband’s putative apology and the couple’s reconciliation, the speaker cannot resist asking one last yes/no question—really, the biggest question of all: Will you love me forever? Then she reverts to type, studying his face for nonverbal cues to what he means when he responds. Which, interestingly, he does not do right away; it’s not until the poem’s very last line and word that we get the husband’s answer. But when we read that final “yes,” it feels like an affirmation of long-term relationships and the value of putting in the effort to make them work. Readers like me who habitually return to a poem’s title after reading the whole poem will read a double affirmation, “yes. . . . Yes.” Because we’ve mostly all been there—asking this question and getting the stock answer and then wondering what it really means—it resonates, and, maybe makes us smile. What makes it funny is that we’ve been educated by the poem to “read” this husband’s “yes” in, well, a very nuanced and qualified way. The speaker is never going to get what she really wants—unequivocal affirmation. But, few of us do, and we get the sense that it will be okay anyway.

I wrote these comments before reading the Poet’s Note, but I am glad to see confirmation that this poem is about more than cultural differences—it’s about accommodations to communications made in a marriage or any other long-term relationship. One thing I especially like is that the poem acknowledges differences—different cultures, different styles of communication, and the emotional challenges they can pose in an intimate relationship—while still affirming the relationship itself. Reading “Yes,” we get a real sense of commitment to making a marriage work and, maybe more importantly, of the sense that this is not just a tedious chore. Real affection, and humor, lighten the touch here.

Duhamel is known for taking on issues relating to sexual politics, which she defines as “The way in which people relate to one another based on gender, our expectations as based on gender,” a theme explored in Exquisite Politics, one of several books she wrote in collaboration with Maureen Seaton. I don’t read today’s poem as being about gender politics, but I do notice Duhamel doing in it one of the things she says she aims to do in her writing. In the face of the pervasive cultural objectification of women, Duhamel is “interested in making them the subjects, not the objects, active rather than passive.” [Source here] Going back to fiction terminology, the speaker is definitely the protagonist in this poem, the one taking all the action, and her husband is her foil.

I’ll close with a few quotes from another interview of the poet that I found inspiring. When asked for her advice for “young women/women-identified poets writing poems today,” Duhamel responds:

Don’t be afraid to write what you are thinking and feeling! Even if a certain thought you have seems taboo, I can pretty much guarantee that other women will say, “Exactly!” and/or “I feel the same way but never thought to articulate it as such.” The testimony of a woman is so often dismissed in our culture, but the testimony of women poets finds an audience. We have a great community. [From “Conversation with Denise Duhamel”]

But it is this, her “best advice about craft and writing,” which really caught my eye:

The late Colette Inez . . . once told me, “Pay yourself first.” When I didn’t understand what she meant, she said that the most important work for writers is writing. It’s easy to make excuses—the floor is dirty, my roots are a mess, I owe my mom a call. All those things may be true, but you will get to them. If you clean, primp, and nurture others first, your whole day could be gone doing such things. But if you give yourself even ten minutes or twenty minutes each day, you are feeding your writing and your mood as well.

I used to hate housework but confess to developing a fondness for it after I started working as a writer full time, sometimes preferring mopping the floor to staring at a blank page. That fondness has reached newly obsessive levels during confinement. We may not be able to eradicate this hideous virus from the world, but we can at least eliminate it from our kitchen counters, right? But—no more. That’s it, people. I am done bleach-spraying every surface in sight every five minutes. And I am going to make my resolution and proclaim it here to the world (well, maybe just to my housemates): The dishes in the sink stay there, at least until I’ve taken ten minutes to write something new that day.

 

 

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