The Power of Lawlessness: A Close Reading of Denise Duhamel’s “Lawless Pantoum”

The title itself begins an exploration of lawlessness in terms of form and content. First, it references Duhamel’s use of the pantoum form and immediately suggests that liberties will be taken. While Duhamel tosses aside the formal conventions of rhyme and meter, subverting the form, she does use the repeating line structure of the pantoum to great effect, presenting lines in one stanza and repeating them in a different position in the next, suggesting that subversion is complex and not a right-or-wrong affair. The title also alludes to the content of the poem and prompts an internal dialogue about anarchy and the consequences of lawlessness. Duhamel asks us to consider whether a sexual lawlessness exists and must be corrected, or if lawlessness is provoked by the creation of these laws and the inevitable rebellions against their absurdity. Do some laws demand lawlessness?

As the note for this poem explains, most lines are drawn from supposed laws governing sexual conduct around the world which were forwarded to Duhamel in an email. Alternately outrageous (“the penalty for masturbation is decapitation”) and seemingly benign (“it is legal to sell condoms from vending machines…”), it is the repetition of each line in a different context or with slightly modified wording which forces the reader to reexamine the purpose and legitimacy of any law that attempts to govern sexual behavior.

For example, the line “saleswomen in tropical fish stores are allowed to go topless” is used in two different contexts to make two different points. When paired with the preceding line “as long as the fish are female,” we see an attempt in lawmaking to control women’s behavior, sexual and otherwise. Females – whether fish or human – must need guidance and instruction, and as long as both the fish and sales clerks are female, toplessness is allowed (as if a topless clerk in a store selling fish wasn’t absurd in and of itself). Since men are not subjected to this rule, however, Duhamel implies that they are the ones making the rules to both assert their dominance and assure their own heterosexual enjoyment. It’s all a matter of control and one small, influential group dictating the behavior it deems appropriate or which satisfies its own version of sexual gratification.

When that same line is paired with “but a gynecologist must only look at a woman’s genitals in a mirror,” a different point is made. Here, Duhamel highlights our contradictory attitudes on sexuality. On one hand it’s perfectly legal to be a topless saleswoman, something to presumably titillate costumers and spur sales, but then there are other laws condescending to our squeamish attitudes about the medical details of female sexuality and reproductive health, dictating which body parts can be examined by medical professionals when a woman needs medical attention. Here a law governing sex appeal is condoned while another law prevents a woman from receiving adequate medical care. With each stanza, Duhamel’s repeating lines and shifting contexts show how these laws make less and less sense.

Duhamel also offers commentary on gender inequality and heterosexuality-at-all-costs in lawmaking. In stanza one, for example

Men are legally allowed to have sex with animals,
As long as the animals are female.
Having sexual relations with a male animal
Is taboo and punishable by death.

Duhamel points out that various laws allow sex with animals, provided the pairing is male-female, suggesting that homosexuality in any configuration is a no-no “punishable by death,” and confirming that the world, and its laws, revolves around preserving the supposed superiority of heterosexuality. Then, when the third line above repeats as the last line of the poem with the modification “everyone’s having sexual relations with a male animal,” the conclusion here is that it all comes down to men – what they think, what they believe, and what they want. Men are still the driving force in lawmaking everywhere, and it’s a small number of powerful and “morally-minded” men that insist on being appeased and having the rest of us follow their righteous lead.

While readers of the poem may wonder which of these “laws” are in fact real and which have been embellished, we know, if we’re honest, that there are places where they exist. We hear, on an almost daily basis, that laws governing sexual behavior are being written, and some controlling, moralistic person or group is trying to get them passed. Duhamel asks us, with her tart and compelling humor, if that’s the world we want to live in, and if those are the laws we want to be governed by. I don’t want to live in that world and be governed by those absurd laws, do you?