Completely Subjective: Denise Duhamel’s “Humanity 101”

I read a lot of poems very quickly and I don’t really like reading poetry slowly, or at least I don’t really like starting off reading a poem slowly because usually I’ll read a poem quickly and then maybe read it again slowly but I need to feel the rush of a poem building up under my skin from the very first line, I need to feel the jerky acceleration driving me further and further forward, all the way off a cliff, off the end of the poem.

Humanity 101” by Denise Duhamel is one of those poems that start off slowly. And continue slowly. And after the first stanza I thought about stopping because slow poems rarely make me feel but they usually make me think so I kept going, past the Paris Hilton analogy that I meditated on for two minutes–because how do you quantify a “US poverty-stricken kid”? How do you put all these children into these boxes because, sure, Paris Hilton has a box of her own but if Paris Hilton has a box of her own why aren’t there however many million boxes for all the poverty stricken kids in America?

Why isn’t answer choice number one not a “poverty-stricken kid” but Anna, Anna from West Virginia who’s favorite color is the dark navy blue ink of this pen she got from somewhere five years ago, Anna who loves planes but has never been in one, Anna who is her own box except she isn’t really a box, is she? Because if she were a box it’d be easier to come up with an analogy because boxes are constant and unchanging and it’s been almost ten minutes but I’m still with Paris Hilton and her boxes that aren’t really boxes and I’m no longer thinking about putting the poem down because I don’t think I can anymore.

I’m no longer thinking about putting the poem down because it feels like I’m moving faster and faster but it’s been another two minutes and I’ve only read another two lines and I almost want to go searching for Denise Duhamel just to ask her something except I wouldn’t know what to ask really but I know how she’d respond. She’d show me the scars underneath her shirt and I’d be tempted to reach inside my bag and pull out the poem because I’d be struck with a strange sense of deja vu and she’d open her mouth to speak, to respond to whatever question she asked me, and I’d open my mouth too because I know what she’d say and

“Is that because your heart is being smashed?”

We’d ask at the same time and then nod in unison, united in our humanity.

And sometimes I think I move through life too fast, that I’m skimming the seconds with my eyes, searching for something that I don’t know if I’ll ever find and maybe that’s why I can’t bring myself to read the first line of anything slowly, maybe because slow poems force me to step outside myself, step outside my skimming eyes and tapping fingers, step into Anna or the narrator or the homeless person slouched against a building and maybe I don’t really know how to feel because I’m feeling too fast and maybe if I talk to Duhamel she’d assign me the exact same extra credit the narrator was assigned and

Maybe she’d ask me to come back with a treatise on detachment maybe she’d ask me to stop trying to fit her in a box, to fit poetry in a box, to fit myself in a box.

Maybe we should all stop thinking about boxes, about clean simple easy-to-solve analogies, about fast poems and slow poems but not the ones in between.

Maybe we should all sign ourselves up for Remedial Humanity.

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