» Book Review
The Voices of Women
The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade
Noctuary Press, 2019
Paperback, 270 pp., $16.00
The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose brings together the voices of poets Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade whose harmonizing take the reader across a spectrum of topics—marriage, divorce, body image, motherhood, queerness, and womanhood. Duhamel and Wade’s use of the lyric essay format, propelling the reader by associative leaps and thematic recurrence rather than causal narratives, allows them to zoom in on individual words and concepts in order to peel back their associations layer by layer. This elasticity of the conversation between the two women pulls the reader into the conversation with them in a unique way. The authors are writing from different perspectives, Duhamel almost a generation apart in age from Wade, yet their assemblage of experience blends in such a way that it becomes a kind of Everywoman experience. The sisterhood cadence throughout is undeniable and takes us places we might not expect to go. One can imagine sitting on a sofa, late into the night, listening to an intimate conversation with two women as they compare their lives’ experiences and explore the challenges of womanhood from a generational standpoint—this is the intrinsic quality of The Unrhymables.
The book is constructed with thirteen thematically linked essays created by micro-memoirs, some of which are sub-titled, from both Duhamel and Wade, moving the conversation back and forth in a fluid motion within each essay. The most challenging aspect for the reader, but evidence of a discernible synergy between the two authors, is the fact that their voices are indistinguishable at times—only separated by inferences to their sexual orientation, coming of age experiences, and their childhood—which are filled with societal and cultural references that invariably reveal the particular author. In the essay “Pink,” Wade learns about the Nazi downward facing “pink triangle” used to identify homosexual Jews, and Duhamel responds with her experiences in New York City during the AIDS crisis and how the Silence=Death slogan’s logo “turned that pink triangle right-side-up.” Both authors experience the same kind of emotions, only years apart in different contexts. This kind of navigational point occurs frequently throughout the prose and directs the conversations. Should the reader not know some of the more intimate details of the authors’ lives, nor have read other works by Duhamel and Wade, one could conceivably read the text without knowing exactly which one is speaking.
However, the hybrid nature of this collection is what takes The Unrhymables to new heights. From writing about colors—“White,” “Pink,” “Red,” “Blue,” “Green,” and “Black”—and exploring their personal, historical, and cultural associations, to constructing a Scrabble edition including tandem essays “N1E1A 1R1” and “E1 R1 A1 S1,” both of which deal with homosexual acceptance in society, Duhamel and Wade take every opportunity to speak through other poets and writers or mention their work. In fact, the book has no less than 188 references. In an especially powerful and poignant moment, Wade recites Orlando poet Stephen Mills’s poem “The History of Blood” to weave into the narrative her fears about gay violence, “Another gay boy got bashed in Miami this week, nearly beaten / to death on his way home from a club. The man’s fist / smashed the boy’s glittered face, like my glittered face dancing / at the gay bar every weekend.”
The essay “S1A1L1T1” sings with Wade’s inattentional-blindness, referencing the poet Elizabeth Bishop without explanation to the audience. The reference is subtle to an average reader—probably missed by most—but familiar to poetry readers. Wade points out in the opening lines of the essay, “If this were chess, I’d choose the bishop and call her Elizabeth. I’d praise her for her smooth slants, her incomparable zigs and zags—never straightforward, never straight back. ‘Elizabeth is a queen’s name’ someone would say. Only poets would understand.” She follows this with “For years I read ‘In the Waiting Room’ in waiting rooms.” Then, a paragraph later, she does it again as she talks about ordering an omelet for breakfast while in Colorado and how she is chastised by her order-taker for expecting the waitress to associate a Denver omelet with a Western omelet, “But when the fluffed eggs appeared, folded sideways and smothered with sharp cheese, it was ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’—another Bishop poem.” All of this to explain the “extra-textual juxtaposition” of bringing art and life together in a literal fashion. It’s this sideways slide found in Wade’s work that makes her such a joy to read.
Nonfiction prose is a departure from Duhamel’s award-winning poetry, but experimentation within her work is not. She is known for playing with pantoums, villanelles, and forms of her own invention such as “porn poetry.” And it’s not the first time she has paid homage to her women forebearers or engaged with feminism in her work. Readers will not find the whimsical poet of “Rated R” in the pages of this collection, but they will find Duhamel’s candid approach as she brings to life the times in our history when our mothers and grandmothers faced much tougher times in terms of equality, racism, and sexism. On occasion, the poet does emerge and takes the reader on a delicious ride, as in “Kaboom,” the sub-titled essay within “Word Problems,” where she writes about wonky words such as boondoggle and conundrum. She even thanks Edgar Allen Poe for tintinnabulation. Readers will appreciate her simple and subversive delivery as she tackles difficult subjects, bringing wisdom to the page. Her details of the sixties and seventies, where many of her experiences resonate with an older generation of readers, also offer deep insight as her gaze is juxtaposed against Wade’s younger perspective.
The final culmination of the dual voices—and the voices even beyond their own two—comes in a glossary at the end of the book akin to Susan Bee and Johanna Drucker’s Fabulas Feminae; Duhamel and Wade’s version includes more than a hundred women and girls from the authors’ personal lives as well as public figures, from past and present, literary figures, and fictional characters. It’s really an homage to the wonderful mixture of women—the scholars, the feminists, the divas, the poets, the victims, the comedians, the fashionistas, the heroines, the goddesses, the icons, the red-heads, the singers, the writers, the sirens, the childhood friends, the movie stars, the classmates, and yes, even the grandmas—who inspired or influenced Duhamel and Wade specifically, but all of us really, in some way.
The book feels like a fresh approach to collaboration. While the authors each take turns giving their thoughts on the same subjects, I didn’t find an established order as I read. In other words, I might read two essays written by Duhamel, followed by one of Wade’s. As in a conversation, one person might have more to say than the other, and this is what makes their collaboration so fluid and natural. By placing their voices side by side, they allow the reader to gain insight into what has or hasn’t changed from one generation to the next. More importantly, I believe the prose embodies the voices of all women, past and present, as influencers of Duhamel and Wade.
After reading The Unrhymables, I have to ponder the idea of the collaboration as a hybrid in addition to the body of work. It’s that sideways slide again: the idea of the offspring from two varieties, composed of different elements, produced through human manipulation for a specific genetic characteristic. The result is a consonant cluster of sorts—Dwade, I call it—each of their notes produced simultaneously to create a particularly savory tone.