“Yes,” by Denise Duhamel


According to Culture Shock:
A Guide to Customs and Etiquette
of Filipinos, when my husband says yes,
he could also mean one of the following:
a.) I don’t know.
b.) If you say so.
c.) If it will please you.
d.) I hope I have said yes unenthusiastically enough
for you to realize I mean no.
You can imagine the confusion
surrounding our movie dates, the laundry,
who will take out the garbage
and when. I remind him
I’m an American, that all his yeses sound alike to me.
I tell him here in America we have shrinks
who can help him to be less of a people-pleaser.
We have two-year-olds who love to scream “No!”
when they don’t get their way. I tell him,
in America we have a popular book,
When I Say No I Feel Guilty.
“Should I get you a copy?” I ask.
He says yes, but I think he means
“If it will please you,” i.e. “I won’t read it.”
“I’m trying,” I tell him, “but you have to try too.”
“Yes,” he says, then makes tampo,
a sulking that the book Culture Shock describes as
“subliminal hostility . . . withdrawal of customary cheerfulness
in the presence of the one who has displeased” him.
The book says it’s up to me to make things all right,
“to restore goodwill, not by talking the problem out,
but by showing concern about the wounded person’s
well-being.” Forget it, I think, even though I know
if I’m not nice, tampo can quickly escalate into nagdadabog
foot stomping, grumbling, the slamming
of doors. Instead of talking to my husband, I storm off
to talk to my porcelain Kwan Yin,
the Chinese goddess of mercy
that I bought on Canal Street years before
my husband and I started dating.
“The real Kwan Yin is in Manila,”
he tells me. “She’s called Nuestra Señora de Guia.
Her Asian features prove Christianity
was in the Philippines before the Spanish arrived.”


From The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press 1999). Reprinted in Queen for a Day: New and Selected Poems (Pitt Poetry Series 2001), available for order here.


Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pitt Poetry Series 2017), available for order here, and you can watch and listen to her reading its poems here. Blowout (Pitt Poetry Series 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other titles from the Pitt Poetry Series include Ka-Ching! (2009), Two and Two (2005), and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (2001). Two earlier books are The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press 1999) and Kinky (Orhisis 1997).

Born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Duhamel graduated from Emerson College and received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She lived in New York City from 1985 to 1999. Citing Dylan Thomas and Kathleen Spivack as early influences, Duhamel writes both free-verse and fixed-form poems. She has received numerous grants and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and she served as the guest editor of The Best American Poetry2013. She teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University where she is a Distinguished University Professor in the MFA program, and lives in Hollywood, Florida.  [Bio augmented with information from the Poetry Foundation website]


Poet’s Note

Although this love poem is on the surface about two people from different cultural backgrounds, as I reread it now, I see that it’s also about communication in any kind of marriage. The speaker in this poem is reading Culture Shock: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette of Filipinos though she could just as easily be reading The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work. “Yes” is a poem of trying, an ode to love—the object of affection a puzzle to solve and cherish. The speaker in “Yes” wants to know everything she can about her beloved, to understand him beyond what he can even tell her. The ending is that slippery place of doubt that seems to be part of so many marriages.


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