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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Number 319: The Limited Edition Platinum Barbie: Denise Duhamel

The Limited Edition Platinum Barbie

Ever since Marilyn Monroe
bleached her hair so it would photograph better                         
under the lights, Bob Mackie
wanted to do the same for Barbie.
Now here she is, a real fashion illustration,
finally a model whose legs truly make up
more than half her height. The gown is white,
and the hair more silver than Christmas,
swept up in a high pouf of intricate twists.
Less demanding than Diana Ross
or Cher, Barbie has fewer flaws to hide.
No plastic surgery scars, no
temper tantrums when Mackie's bugle beads
don't hang just right. Calvin Klein
won't design certain styles
for any woman larger than size eight.
He "doesn't do upholstery" is the way
he likes to put it. So imagine Bob Mackie's thrill
of picking up this wisp of a model,
Barbie weighing less than a quart of milk.
Imagine him dressing her himself.
The eight thousand hand sewn sequins
which would have easily been eight million
if he had to design this gown for a bulky human.
Yes, Barbie is his favorite client– poised,
ladylike, complying.  As he impales her
on her plastic display stand, Mackie's confident
she won't ruin any effect by bad posture.
Collectors can pay in four monthly installments
of $38.50 and have Barbie delivered to their home.
Others can go to Mackie's display at FAO Schwartz's,
the most expensive toy store in New York,
to remind themselves of who they'll never be,
of what they'll never have.

– Denise Duhamel

Hap Notes: It may seem like a dizzying jump from Ulysses to Barbie but, that doll is part of most every living American woman's story in some way– Barbie can stand in for our cyclops, our charybdis, our Circe, in contemporary culture. The journey that a woman makes from Barbie to well-balanced woman is an odyssey. Some of us make it to the shores of other adventures; some of us are still with the lotus-eaters.

Yes, the Barbie analogy has been raked over and over again but no one has done it with more droll wit, acidity and humanity than Duhamel, whose 1997 book Kinky is a series of poems about Barbie which are as alarmingly sad as they are hilarious. The series includes a variety of thought-provoking circumstances including Barbie in therapy (with Dr. Midge– which just brings up more ironies),  Barbie as a cunning extra-terrestrial, Barbie at an AA meeting and Barbie filling out a job application. The book is a storm of stand-up wise-cracking, smoking anger and confused heartache. And, as Shakespeare so succinctly put it; the gravest things are said in jest.

Bob Mackie is a pop culture name that has dissolved in the precipitate of newer designers, the parade of which passes through the culture for their moment in the sun until they are over shadowed by a new one. Mackie created many famous glitzy outfits for Cher, Liz Minnelli, Whitney Houston etc. etc. His clients were legion in the entertainment industry and even included David Bowie.  The Barbie dolls Duhamel mentions in the poem were begun in 1990 and have escalated in value over the years so that the doll in question, once available for three installments of $38.50, are now worth upwards of $600. This has as much to do with the Barbie story as it has to do with Mackie. (Breaking off to say that using the word "Mackie" so much puts me in mind of Mack the Knife from Weill and Brecht's Three Penny Opera- don't know that the poet thought of this but I wouldn't put it out of her reach.)

My Barbie stories are not particularly interesting as my mother took the first Barbie I got as a gift for my 9th birthday and put it away (giving it back to me when I was close to 12) saying that it was "too mature" for me. I painted shoes on her arched foot because the shoes were so dreadfully flimsy, cut her hair and did not take the ladylike care of her as so many of my contemporaries did.  My Barbie was always a little wild-looking, a feral Barbie, if you will. BUT it was still a Barbie- still part of that beauty culture that we all must face.

Duhamel is the author of over a half dozen books of poetry. She got her BFA at Emerson and her MFA at Sarah Lawrence. She teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University. Here she is reading some of her work:

In today's poem, just before you dismiss it as something just telling you something about the Barbie culture that you already know, think about why the poet says Barbie "weighs less than a quart of milk." Barbie weighs less than a quart of anything– why does the poet specifically say milk? And what about "impaling" that Barbie on a stand?

Here's a good Duhamel quote: "I believe it's impossible to write good poetry without reading. Reading poetry goes straight to my psyche and makes me want to write. I meet the muse in the poems of others and invite her to my poems. I see over and over again, in different ways, what is possible, how the perimeters of poetry are expanding and making way for new forms."

Here's the full interview:

More Duhamel is available for reading here:

And just for fun, here are the most expensive Barbies with pictures:

The masthead today is, from left to right: Mackie's Platinum Barbie, Mackie's first limited edition Barbie, and Duhamel.


  1. I'm not often a fan of Duhamel: I find much of her work disappointingly timid ("Sex with a famous poet" is just too ladylike for my palate).

    But this is delicious. That poisonous 'real fashion illustration' in line 5 - where first you notice that 'real' doesn't mean what it ought to; then you clump into 'illustration' - also a long way from normal ways that words work. You don't have to remember that 'God fashioned Man'; but if you can, it's very worrying.

    Similarly with Calvin Klein who 'doesn't do upholstery'. I wonder if he really said that. Whether or not, poems can do powerful stuff by taking casual remarks and fixing them up permanently. Duhamel is really on song with her small but deadly dislocations of language here.

    I still think the poem fizzles out alarmingly with that horribly moralising closing quatrain. Duhamel can't seem to entirely shuck her Isaac Watts mode, even with a poem as elegantly dismissive as this was up to that point.

    I can nearly forgive her. Starting the poem on an Iambic Tetrameter was such a thrill.

  2. I like your post about " The Limited Edition Platinum Barbie: Denise Duhamel " very nice post. It is very help full.I do appreciate about this post & this blog ... :)

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  3. i want to know the interpretation of the poem...whats does it mean....what is it saying?