An Unmarried Woman

Denise Duhamel Click to read more...

Denise Duhamel is the author of several poetry collections, including Ka-Ching (Pittsburgh, 2009) Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005) and Mille et sentiments (Firewheel, 2005). She is winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and has been anthologized in several edition of Best American Poetry. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and teaches at Florida International University.

An Unmarried Woman

(for Jill Clayburgh, 1944-2010)

When I first saw it, I was a high school junior. Jill Clayburgh was scandalous
ballet dancing in her tee shirt and panties, showing her teenage daughter
a wet spot on the bed after she’d made love to her husband, the girl’s father.

I was fascinated by Clayburgh’s lip gloss and feathered hair.
I had a Fair Isle sweater just like hers and wanted the crazy cape
in which she wraps her new lover on a cobblestone street in New York.

I didn’t understand then, of course, that I would someday be divorced
after sixteen years of marriage, just like her character, throwing up
on a sidewalk just like she did, jittery in a therapist’s office,

having an awful blind date, eating dim sum with a stranger
who would try to kiss her in a cab. Instead of pirouetting
to “Swan Lake,” I jumped around the apartment, singing

along with Pink and Beyoncé. Back then, in 1978, I didn’t quite get
betrayal’s depths. I just liked Jill’s outfits—the skirt and tank in the final scene
that reminds me now of Sarah Jessica Parker’s ensemble in the opening credits

of Sex and the City. When her artist-lover gives Jill a giant painting
as he heads off to Vermont for the summer and she carries it through Soho,
fumbling and twisting in the wind, you can’t help but root for her,

just as I am rooting for myself, watching this movie again on DVD
thirty years later, part of my post-divorce Netflix recovery.
Jill is in the obituaries (credit joann at here). Breast cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukemia—

how can that be? She looks so young and fresh as she ice skates
with her pals, runs along the East River where her husband steps in dog shit
and blames her. When I first saw An Unmarried Woman, I went with my friend

and, if I remember correctly, we were freaked out by the sex scenes
and barely acknowledged Jill’s bland teenage daughter
who would have been about our age. Afterwards, at Friendly’s, we talked

about the pickled herring arc. Jill’s lover tells the story
about how his mother threw a jar towards his father’s head
and how, as he watched the fish smash against the wall, he decided

to become an abstract painter. Towards the end of the movie,
the lover himself lobs a jar at Jill when she doesn’t do what he wants.
My friend told me her mother hurled a bottle of applesauce at her father

and when she missed, the stuff ruined the wallpaper.
That was just marriage, we guessed, sipping our frappes.
We put our hands over our hearts and pledged we’d never wed

even as the cute boys came in, crowding into a booth
across from us. We blushed and giggled despite ourselves.
Adults, we agreed, were crazy—we wanted no part of their messes.

Discussion

4 Responses to An Unmarried Woman

  1. Thanks for publishing this wonderful elegy for Jill C. which is of course also an elegy for everything that Duhamel is mourning in her own life. I like the way she repaints the film for us and reminds us of a pop culture hero some of us barely recognized at the time. Looking back at this film about a woman in her time, from a woman in this time might help some younger women look ahead.

  2. Paulette says:

    As always, Denise, I believe in you as a person and a poet. And, you help me believe in myself as a poet. Thanks for this poem.

  3. Richard Atwood says:

    In Memoriam: Life in the real lane.

  4. John W. Evans says:

    A fantastic poem–brave, smart, heartbreaking stuff.

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