KRISTIN BERKEY-ABBOTT Reviews
237 More Reasons to Have Sex by Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh
(Otoliths, Australia, 2009)
Most of my poetry students register deep suspicion when I first bring up the possibility of a list poem. They say, “A list? That’s it? I can just make a list?” Then we look at some list poems, and they see that it’s a far harder task than they first thought.
At first read, 237 More Reasons to Have Sex, by Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh seems like the kind of book that would make the composition of the list poem look like an easy task. A closer read shows how complex and multifaceted a list poem can be.
The idea for this chapbook-length list poem came when one of the poets discovered this quote by Cindy Meston at the end of an article where she wrote of her research that discovered precisely 237 reasons for humans to have sex: “Originally, I thought that we exhaustively compiled the list, but now I f ound that there should be some added . . ." (Archives of Sexual Behavior, Volume 36, Number 4, August 2007). By e-mail, Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh began exchanging more reasons for having sex, and thus, this chapbook was born.
Some of these reasons seem straightforward, and perhaps rather unpoetic: “#5. My vibrator was in the repair shop.” or “#15. I thought you were somebody else.”
I love the way that these reasons are often responding to each other (and thus, some of the poetry enters). For example, reason # 16 reads, “I thought I was somebody else.” Hmmm. I love a piece of poetry that makes me stop and consider the world differently. Often these series go in startling directions: “#22. I thought you frenched the bed so I wanted to French our kiss. #23. I’d already rented the French maid’s costume, so I figured I might as well do it. #24 I yearned to play the English butler because I liked the way the butler did it.” I love the humor that’s present in so many of these poems/reasons.
I had a chance to speak to Denise Duhamel at a local poetry reading, and I asked her about the writing process that they used in the creation of this book. She said that they wrote back and forth at a furious pace, finishing the rough draft in about two weeks. Then they shuffled the order of the poems until they got the one that makes the most sense. And yet, as one reads the complete book, it’s hard to imagine that it ever would have progressed in any different order than the one that is presented.
Many of these poems make me think of sex in completely different ways, and I don’t mean in terms of position, but more in terms of symbol and meaning. Here’s reason #171: “I dreamed that night, and in my dream I watched her collect my dreams and pin them to her skirt like butterflies to a shadow box.” Reason #146 says, “The sun through the stained glass turned your face violet, my favorite color.” If I was still in graduate school, I could write pages that would explicate the symbolism and meaning. Since I’m writing a book review, I’ll let readers ponder the possibilities. In our sex-drenched culture, it’s refreshing to come across creative work that makes me see the topic anew.
Of course, the poems address more than just sex. They give us new ways to see our bodies, like #66: “I didn’t know you could see my pink taco through my skirt.” This, before # 67 which says, “And your snapping castanets, as well,” and after # 65, which says, “Perhaps it was your introspective and touchingly solipsistic Mexican Hat Dance that did the trick.”
The poems also have all sorts of delightful references to other literature, like #4: “Because of the plums / so delicious, so cold / Forgive me.” I first read this book just after Easter, so #175 spoke to me that week: “Then I rolled the stone away from our bedroom door and—Lo—you had risen and were making our tea.” There are numerous references to pop cultural markers, and the poet Nin Andrews surfaces periodically.
This book is the wonderful treat that rewards the reader who plows straight through, as well as the reader who wants to dip in and out and spend some time meditating. I often give my students the assignment to write about love in a way that makes us see love in a way that we’ve never seen before and let them wrestle with how to stay away from cliché. This book could lead to a similar assignment about the topic of sex. Of course, this book might lead students to despair, since it’s difficult to imagine that we can much new to the topic after this delightful collection by Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. She has published in many journals and was one of the top ten finalists in the National Looking Glass Poetry Chapbook Competition. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale and serves as Assistant Chair of the General Education department. Her website, which has connections to the blogs that she keeps, is www.kristinberkey-abbott.com.