Saturday, March 1, 2008

Our Third Poem: The putting away of dolls by Denise Duhamel

Our March discussion will focus on Denise Duhamel's "The Putting Away of Dolls" from her collection The Woman With Two Vaginas: Poetry based on Eskimo mythology. (The entire collection, which won the 1994 Salmon Run Poetry Prize and was nominated for an American Library Association award, is available online through the Contemporary American Poetry Archive.)

The Putting Away of Dolls

This is what they called the day
her first blood came, the day she was too old
for her long slender doll made of reindeer bone.
It had taken a long time for her to learn
how to sew seal intestines without tearing them,
how to guide the ulu
so no part of an animal's hide was wasted.
She'd given her bone doll a wolverine ruff
because breath would not freeze
on that kind of fur. Though her father
carved her a doll with no arms,
she'd made parka sleeves from the seamless skin
of a ground squirrel's front legs.
She'd crimped the doll's moccasins with her teeth,
double checked each stitch to make sure
no wind or ice could pass through it.
An ill-sewn garment could mean death.
An ill-made marriage could mean unhappiness.
Her dolls' outfits were perfect as her mother
packed them away. The sticky blood,
slow and strange between her legs. She grew
dizzy as her family began to talk
of husbands and babies. She was an animal
strung upside-down, drained before drying.
Her hands never to touch skins that small again.

(Reprinted with permission from the author.)

Spend some quality time with the poem. Read it again and again. Make sure you read it out loud at least once. Slowly. Then share your thoughts, observations, questions and impressions in the comments section of this post.

Upcoming: Next week, we will post a prompt related to the poem!


jillypoet said...

Oh wow. I love her work to begin with, but to discover apoem that I hadn't read and love it like this. What a gift! I will go back and back to this one. Such fine detail. First impression, it is the precise detail that makes this poem sing. And the tone. Oh, and the ending. I have poet envy.

Anonymous said...

from Therese Broderick--This poem reminds me of what Kafka said about great literature: it is an ice-axe that breaks the frozen sea within us. This poem about primal survival has a "terrible beauty" (Yeats, I think). It is bone-hard and unflinching as it presents to us the stark necessities of our natural lives, of our required rites of initiation. A girl must learn how to be woman, must learn how to put away the toys of childhood, must learn how to sacrifice selfhood for the sake of group demands and perpetuation. (The phrase "put away the things of childhood" is Biblical, I think, and refers to how boys must become men.) The details in this poem are exquisitely well-chosen. As one example: the bone-doll without arms is carved by the father, but the daughter sews sleeves anyway. I see that detail as suggesting that the daughter is able to provide through creativity and imagination what the father cannot provide through available natural resources (reindeer bone). If we take the bone to be not just a doll but a tool, then it could be a writing tool, and then this poem could be about how a young girl poet first "decorates" her poems as practice in order to prepare herself for the later necessity, as a grown woman poet, of dying into her art for the sake of something larger. (I once read somewhere that we all need to find a poem that we could die into.) And notice that as soon as the girl learns to make a perfect doll outfit, her mother takes the perfect thing away. Certainly in that detail I see the motif common in fairy tales-- the daughter's perfection always threatens the mother's vanity or status. The little girl must die (is killed by the mother) in order for the young woman to gain ascendancy.

Linda Jacobs said...

I'm with Jilly: poet envy, for sure! What an exquisite poem! I've only read it once so far but am amazed at the simplicity and complexity at the same time.

Therese, your take on this poem is so well thoughout! I was feeling many of the same things but just couldn't put them into words like you did!

What a great choice!

ren.kat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Phantom said...

I could not help but think of the broader context of this poem. The giving up of childhood not only occurs for women but for all children. Menstruation is the perfect metaphor because the loss of our childish innocense is out of our control. Male or female, we wind up to find it gone one day and we look back to seek that moment that it flowed out of us.

Therese is correct about the Biblical reference and after re-reading the poem, I could not help but think of it: 1 Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things."

I was also reminded of "Travel" by Robert Louis Stevenson and that need we all feel to try and capture that sense of wonder that we had as a child. Not to wax to philospohical but it often seems as though there are two kinds of people: those that try to find it and instill it in others, and those who wish to destroy it when it peeks out.

ren.kat said...

Hm. I don't pick up on any sense of wonder in this poem. It is all quite practical. There is no pretending on the part of the girl.

The poem doesn't say she has played with the doll.

She has learned real world survival techniques in preparation for what is to come. She has been diligent in learning how to sew "small skins" in preparation for a marriage- which is just as tenuous in its seams (you can slap me for that metaphor later).

I see her as standing on the edge of a diving board. Not being robbed of anything. Not being surprised or frightened. Temporarily overwhelmed perhaps. . .

Of course the putting away of childish things rings with Biblical allusion, but I think it is only literary in the sense of our literary heritage, it is difficult to avoid it. But I can't see how a mystics reading of this poem could really work. I do see this poem as uniquely female. Men do not have the tangible and sudden awareness of change- even their voices change slowly.

The penultimate line is interesting, because to most of us, I would assume, it seems disgusting- the carcass hanging there.

However, the mention of skin so many times in the poem. The value of utilizing everything--including the squirrel bits--is appreciated.

Who she was, is left to drain and dry but will be useful for something else. Dried fish, dried meat- are tough.That is why I used the word cocoon earlier.

But she won't touch it. She has outgrown in.

As I said, I don't get a sense of wonder or see the archetype of an evil stepmother/witch.

This all seems very straight forward to me. Incredibly gorgeous. Straight-forwardly honest with absolutely no strain.

The Phantom said...

I think that's what makes this such a good speaks on multiple levels. Surely there are the specifics of the event involved and the uniquness of the female experience therein.

Bet there is also a deeper meaning that speaks to all of us...a meaning that speaks to the human condition.

The very image of a doll evokes a sense of whimsy and play and we can surely picture this child playing with her dolls. What she did not realize at the time was that such play was preparation for so much play is. As children we are being given the skills we need to survive as adults once we are bled of our innocence.

Again, that is why this is an amazing work of many levels to be explored.

ren.kat said...

I understand what you are saying, but I have become accustom to critiquing a poem based on what is within the poem that speaks of truth nested, not rooted, in the tangible.

That is, just as it is difficult to find a language that transcends Biblical allusion, it is difficult to transcend the vague, metaphysical human truths. A grocery list can be made to speak of the human condition. It does. Paul Farley has a found poem that is a listing of his teeth and their condition. It is brilliant. The joy is in finding a poem that speaks the truth through specifics. Sometimes a Fox should be left to be just a Fox. Foxes don't need to describe a meta structure to justify their foxness.

That is why I think words should be defined by their company. Individual words should not be looked at the context of our personal or cultural symbolism, unless it is clear the poet wants you to. Writing in symbols would bind poets to greeting card verse. Or worse, a series of allusions that reveal the poet's college reading list.

Each poem teaches the reader what every word means. Doll may convey whimsy to some. Others may think of Voodoo dolls, china dolls, objects of desperate security. I don't think the poem indicates that this doll is any of those things. It is always up to the poem to define each word. Each concept. For example, I don't see in the poem who the girl was NOT aware of what she was learning. I read quite the opposite. She knows she has been prepared for the demands of marriage.

Of course, I am not saying anyone has to critique poetry the way I have learned to. Nor am I saying that I absolutely know the doll isn't whimsical.

Not even the poet has the objective truth of the poem.

Of course if the poem didn't speak of human truths, it wouldn't be a good poem. But not all poems that speak a human truth are good poems.

The Phantom said...

Ahh...I had suspected we were treading on construction vs. deconstruction territory. I will admit to being a bit of a deconstructionist although there is a fanstastic episode of Northern Exposure which lays out the counter argument quite well.

It's probably my love of Dickens, Poe, and Stevenson which feeds my need to deconstruct :-)

ren.kat said...

The two paths of reading are also two paths of writing, I think. I am studying Arabic poetry right now and I think they begin with the huge, abstract language and allow the reader to find the earth down here. I guess I am less forgiving of Western writers when they do the same. . . I am trying to be more open. -

Anonymous said...

from Therese--I enjoy these discussions very much (and even the disagreements), and hope that I can make valuable contributions. Since I'm new, it will take time for me to get to know you all. And vice versa. I apologize if my earlier post seemed to be showing off with allusions to my college reading list. Feel free, if you take issue with something I say, to tell me straight on. I like to share with enthusiasm my particular interpretations. I love critique, and I know that some poets hate critique. If I have violated the rules of this blog with regard to critiques, pleaes do let me know. I often read deeply into poems, sometimes too deeply. But in this poem, I DO find mythic elements. I think that this Duhamel poem is more than just a documentary (in fact, it could be the opposite: entirely make-believe). I find it hard, as a reader, to approach a poem as if my mind were a blank slate. Yes, I do bring to a new poem what I've learned from all the other poems which I've read. I agree that I was overextending with the "evil stepmother/witch" interpretation. I apologize for that. However, I do think that that particular detail (the mother taking away the perfect outfits) is aligned with at least one major significant myth about a girl's rite of passage: the Persephone myth. One take on that myth is this: the mother colludes or assists in the loss of her daughter's innocence. The mother knows what must be done in the cycle of life and, knowingly, permits her daughter's kidnapping to happen. In this Duhamel poem, too, I get the sense that the mother knows what must be done; she quietly and obediently turns her daughter over to it.

ren.kat said...

Hi Therese,

Are you kidding? I don't know anyone here :-)

The remark about academic, "close reading" wasn't aimed at you. I certainly see now why you'd think so. I am sorry that I was sloppy. I was actually responding more to the Phantoms Broader Context. (Responding, not criticizing!)

Sharing your wicked-witch association was certainly nothing to apologize for! I don't see it, but I feel privileged in discussions like this to see how poems stimulate us differently.

I like poetry critiques. However, I have come to believe, for my own true enjoyment of a poem - rather than an "acquired appreciation" based on knowledge of a cultural context- I need to take the poem as an objet d'art. I am not aware of a poet who sits down to write a poem that alludes to this and that. I take that back. In college I certainly saw a lot of that kind of "reading list" poetry. It never rings true. I believe good poetry begins always as art for art's sake, fiction or not.

Of course cultural associations will come into play- it is exciting when they do. I just feel that an initial reading of a poem should be on the poem's terms. The word doll being defined by the poem, the mother's attitude being derived from the poem first, not through an association not explicitly present in the artwork itself. HOWEVER, of course, at some point it is valuable to pull in allusion-based interpretations. If they don't begin to warp the poem's own identity.

I am taking up far too much space. My intension was to point out that, seeing allusions to great works of art does not speak to the value of the work being critiqued.

I will back off now. Just wanted to let you know I had no issues- nor do I know the protocol. I certainly had no agenda to flame you.

ren.kat said...


I don't know how to get in touch with you- but this discussion- as sloppy as my contributions were- plays into a critique-ish thing I am working on. It would nice to have a Devil's advocate. Not that you are the Devil or anything. If you are curious, could you get in touch?