Direct Hits: Paper Bullets by Julie Kane and Walking in on People by Melissa Balmain

oth Julie Kane and Melissa Balmain are American masters of humor. Both have served in public roles: Kane as the poet laureate of Louisiana, Balmain as the editor of Light. Both address gender in their work. Both use the comedian's punch line to bring a poem to a close. And both are very, very funny.

Julie Kane's book Paper Bullets, published by White Violet Press in 2014, and based on a phrase from Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing—"Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour?"—uses the bullets of humor to take on her targets, often herself, and even more often relationships, pointing out their absurdity.

The book is comprised of six sections focusing on war in various contexts, the first of which focuses on gender. Two stand-outs from "Gender Wars" are "Men Who Love Redheads" and "Alan Doll Rap." Both poems focus on vulnerability. The first poem focuses on the specialized subgroup of men who love women with red hair: "You can pick one out in a crowd / by the way he jerks his head / when an Irish setter passes" (1-3). While one would expect a discouraged tone, the tone is cheerful, even understanding. The obsessive force is as predictable, the speaker notes, as a "force of physics, / as a red flag draws a bull" (15-16). It is the cheerful tone that sets up the zinger, like a Shakespearean couplet or the punch line in standup comedy: "without their kind in the world / you might never get laid at all" (23-24).

Anyone who has ever played with Barbies has noted the scarcity of male dolls compared to female ones—probably something like a 15:2 ratio. In that sense, the poem is relatable to anyone who has ever played with dolls. Yet it is the combination of elements that Kane uses that make the poem so funny. For example, Kane's choice of form for the piece is a rap, a form stereotypically associated with male artists:

When I was ten
I wanted a Ken
to marry Barbie
I was into patriarchy
for plastic dolls
eleven inches tall
cuz the sixties hadn't yet
happened at all. (1-8)

To solve the problem, her mother buys her the cheaper Alan from a dollar store. The Ken/Alan dichotomy becomes a way for Kane to talk about cool men versus uncool men, in doll life and in real life: "Alan's hair was felt /stuck on with cheap glue" (21-22); "Ken's hair was plastic…no Ken bad hair days" (27, 30). If Ken is the fantasy to deliver the pink Dream House, Alan is the reality. Alan's engagement ring is "made of cubic zirconia / or cubic Plexiglas" (46-47). In addition, Alan is a user, taking advantage of Barbie's generosity:

Take off that tuxedo
Alan would torpedo
for the Barcalounger
Bye-bye libido. (57-60)

Rather than contributing to the situation—financially and otherwise—Alan is

Stinking up her boudoir with his cigar
Shrinkin up her cash advance
on her MasterCard
and tryin on her pink peignoir. (63-66)

Expectation and reality are intertwined, not only for Ken and Alan in the Barbie Doll world, but for later in life. This poem is really a standout.

The remaining five sections also use war as a theme, but remain informed by the issues raised in "Gender Wars": "Canon Wars," "Man vs. Nature vs. Nature," "Skirmishes," "The War on Ignorance," and "The War with Time." In moving through the book, Kane runs the gamut of literary forms, some of which you may not normally see in a book-length collection. Some of my favorites are the limericks that make up the "Wallace Stevens Suite," with such memorable lines as the opener to "The Emperor of Ice Cream's New Clothes": "One has to look up half the words: / 'ice cream' is 'concupiscent curds'" (1-2). Also noteworthy is Edna St. Vincent Millay's parodic take on Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel," to which she speaks with experience.

Not everyone finds the same things funny, which is a continual problem, if you work in the field of humor—either on the stage or on the page. If "The Lost Fascicle" seems a little long to this reader for that reason, there are many memorable sections, particularly in the first half. I find this true as well of the third section of the book, although it includes the oddly compelling "Dog Walkin Blues."

The book picks up again in the fourth section, with two of my favorites, "Five Things I Hate That Other People Seem to Love" and "The Rivals." In the first, Kane draws attention to cultural absurdities like preoccupations with melted cheese and the smell of gasoline. She also draws attention to her own flaws by her one-time preoccupation with alcohol—"The problem was I loved it too damned much / And now I can't have any more at all" (7-8)—and her own life changes: "I can't help thinking being wrong on dogs / About my husbandless and childless life" (7-8). Not only does Kane remove herself from the larger public group in the previous poem, but she allies herself with a smaller group still, the group of academic poets. It is a truism that small stakes bring out the largest egos: this is true of both academia and the literary world. There is a joke in Ireland that people move from academic politics to national politics because the politics are less vicious. In "The Rivals" two "frenemies" go out for lunch, and pretend to be nice, when each wants an upcoming literary prize for herself, and like characters out of Shakespeare, "we both remained observant / For toxins slipped in our tea" (11-12).

The last two sections of the volume return to academia and time, both preoccupations of Kane as a professor. She offers a witty plagiarism argument in "The Best Defense," and a list of advice in "Wrong Things They Taught Me," which ends with a poignant observation: that the things that hurt us most we remember always, no matter how many good things we have in our lives. At the same time, she does not take herself so seriously that she wouldn't choose another career path if she could. That is the argument in "Diva," where Kane emphasizes that, if given the choice between poet and diva, "I'd be a diva, you can bet on it" (9).

The last big howler in the book is "The Ballade of Hirsuteness of Yore," which bemoans the disappearance of hairy men from society. "Where are the shows of frontal hair?" (8), she ponders, adding, "When did we all go smooth as slugs?" (35). That life's flaws both bother her and preoccupy her are what make Julie Kane's poems memorable, as well as the tone with which she writes them. You will read the book straight through.

Melissa Balmain's Walking in on People, published by Able Muse Press in 2013 and the winner of the Able Muse Book Award, judged by X. J. Kennedy, shares with Paper Bullets the gift for the comedian's zinger. Nearly twice as long as Paper Bullets, the book takes time with its five sections. While they are not labeled as overtly as in Kane's book, they address similar subjects: gender, relationships, the passage of time, and loss. At the same time one of Balmain's particular strengths is the human interest story.

Both Kane and Balmain begin their books by establishing their identities as women. "Villain Elle," with its nice magazine pun on the villanelle form, examines the difference between normal-sized women and fashion models. The speaker, who yearns to lie in bed and read magazines (a variation on the stereotype of the woman who stays home all day and eats chocolates: a woman I have never met), says, "Page Eight has bathing suits that look just swell / if you're six foot and live on Lean Cuisine" (7-8). She decides it is better to get out of bed and do something rather than put herself through this torture.

Interestingly, while the last howler in Kane's book is "The Ballade of Hirsuteness of Yore," Balmain has an early poem in her collection entitled "Her Suit," which uses the framework of a relationship ad to address the subject of hairiness, introducing female hairiness to the mix. The ad is looking for "a single female, 30s-40s, who is natural-looking, with extensive body hair" (epigraph). The woman who answers the ad thinks she has found the solution to her loneliness, only to find a new, farm-related problem. It is another masterful poem on the unexpected topic of hairiness.

One of the other early standouts in the book is the title poem which addresses the speaker's propensity for walking in on people who are engaged in amorous situations, such as "poets who—shared sitting rooms be damned / I witnessed at a conference, enjambed" (9-10) and "two mimes in nothing but their makeup" (12). While the first half of this poem is more memorable than the second, it is a memorable poem overall, and emphasizes Balmain's ability to address the truth straight on, even if she stumbles upon it.

Another one of Balmain's great gifts is finding an unexpected topic, often through human interest stories. For example, the "BraBall" is a sculptural creation that invites women to contribute their most loathed bras for art. She converts this situation into "Song of the BraBall," which begins with these compelling details:

Sayonara, you Miracle bras—
we are sick of miraculous itch.
Adios, you maternity bras
with the clasps that make nursing a bitch." (1-4).

At the same time, the poem becomes a way to meditate on the equivalent for men— "(Any boyfriend or spouse who dares mock / our obsession with lingerie schlock / needs a day in an underwire jock.)" (12-14)—as well as on other possibilities for sculptural balls made of uncomfortable items like high heels and thongs.

Occasionally there is a serious poem, like the touching tribute to John Mella, the former editor of Light, who died in 2012. As this poem appears almost exactly at the center of the book, it is as if his spirit radiates throughout the volume. Yet, whether serious or light, in this third section, age, transformation, and loss are the main themes. We all are guilty of using euphemism to cover up truths, but Balmain calls these situations out, with serious and sometimes lighter attempts, like calling a prune a prune. In addition, the themes of transformation and loss can focus on more concrete matters like diet, and such an interest in diet permeates the book. For example, a rewritten version of Little Red Riding Hood has Red carrying nutritious foods like kale casseroles to her grandmother, who is attempting to get her cholesterol down, and whose hunger takes an unexpected turn.

Balmain is also preoccupied with how the world has changed, technologically and ecologically. This first is evident in "Lullabies for the 21st Century," where the world is "tot-eat-tot" (4), and popular children's songs like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Mockingbird" become ways to contemplate realities like the fact that "Preschool apps will soon be due" (6) as well as that "Mama's gonna buy you a talking bird. / And when its microchip breaks down/ Mama's gonna buy you a dancing clown" (8-10).

Such rapid change has not only affected children through technology, but the planet as a whole through climate change. In "Al Gore's" Ode on Global Warming" Balmain parodies Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud," and offers an opportunity for the Nobel Laureate to bemoan his depression about unexpected weathers in Nashville: "None of my trophies made me chipper. / I glumly sunbathed, missing Tipper" (11-12). He goes on to say, "I took a stroll with my Nobel. . . / Until a blizzard hit. Good Lord. / With climate change you're never bored" (16-18).

For this reader, the fifth section is somewhat different from the others because of its more serious tone, and in that sense the book ends on a more wistful note. "Love Poem" bemoans the fact that we love things only when we have lost them, like our old house or piano. Donald Duck yearns for his early days with Daisy. The dictionary feels unloved. Yet what Balmain captures is what we all recognize, for better or for worse: things change. Everything changes but us; everyone ages but us; things used to be better, but not entirely. Perhaps in the face of loss it is difficult always to find the humorous take.

Yet both Kane and Balmain use their identities as women to frame their view on the world's absurdities. It is when they simultaneously mine the serious and humorous that they are exhibit why they are two of the funniest poets writing.

Works Cited

Balmain, Melissa. Walking in on People. Able Muse Press, 2013.

Kane, Julie. Paper Bullets. Hemet, CA: White Violet Press, 2014.


Kim Bridgford is the director of Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference. As the editor of Mezzo Cammin, she founded The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, which was launched at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington in March 2010, and has since held celebrations at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and at Fordham-Lincoln Center. Her collaborative work with the visual artist Jo Yarrington has been honored with a Ucross fellowship. Bridgford is the author of nine books of poetry, including the forthcoming Human Interest. She has been called "America's First Lady of Form."


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