Boy George Palinode

Denise Duhamel

—after David Trinidad

In an early poem, I claim be born on the same day as Boy George. I wrote the poem before Google, after I saw his birthday celebrated on Entertainment Tonight. It must have been sometime in the mid-1980s because I was still in grad school at Sarah Lawrence. I remember writing “the fact” of Boy George’s birthday in my notebook. I remember saying to Chuck Wachtel (whose book The Coriolis Effect had just come out, in 1985) that I shared a birthday with Yeats (b. 1865), but my real kinship was with Boy George. I told him that The Boy is the one I wanted to write about. You should, he said. (Thank you, Chuck!) And I wrote the poem shortly thereafter. The poem wound up being my first big publication, appearing in an issue of Ploughshares guest-edited by Bill Knott in 1987. (Thank you, Bill!) And the poem wound up helping me secure my first adjunct teaching job at Baruch. The actual chair was on sabbatical and a professor who loved poetry was taking his place. (Thank you, acting chair! And thank you, too, of course, Boy George!) I had never taught comp—or even taken a comp class—but the acting chair scheduled me for two sections and handed me a big textbook he said all the comp adjuncts used. The textbook was heavy in my backpack. (I still had strong shoulders back then.) None of the students liked it, so I gave my class creative writing prompts: What secret have you been holding in? How did your parents meet? What are you most ashamed of? My students learned to love writing; though their essay structure must have suffered. I showed movies (Do the Right Thing) and music videos (Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”) I took one of my class sections to the Guggenheim (on a day it had free admission) to see Jenny Holzer’s retrospective, her words in lights spiraling in the rotunda. Each student picked one of her phrases (protect me from what I want or when something terrible happens people wake up or you are a victim of the rules you live by) to start an essay. Sometimes my students’ confessions scared me a little: I killed my friend (by mistake) when I was fifteen or I self-induced my own abortion because I was afraid my family would disown me or I saw corpses as I escaped Yugoslavia or I am a product of rape and have never met my birth father. My students didn’t seem scared, so I kept teaching my unconventional ways. I likened myself to The Boy.

Fame never came to her, but it should have. I can’t remember her astrological sign or her birthday. We had a falling out over something I also can’t remember.

But “On Being Born The Same Exact Day Of The Same Exact Year As Boy George,” the poem that started it all, started in a lie. I am not born the same day as Boy George. I am one day older. It’s my theory that Entertainment Tonight must have been wrong or maybe was on only once a week and the host (Rona Barrett?) wished a happy birthday to the singer a day early. As of today (June 20, 2022—David Trinidad said Ginsberg told him to date all his writing), Boy George and I are both 61, and we were also born in 61. I’m not sure if Boy George has thought about this. I only mention it because my friend Steve pointed it out. 

No celebrities seem to share my actual birthday. Ally Sheedy is one year younger (b. 6/13/62). She published a book of poetry (Yesterday I Saw the Sun) two years before I did. I loved Ally Sheedy of The Breakfast Club, the famous dandruff flakes on her desk. (I read somewhere the dandruff was actually Parmesan cheese!) But her book put her on my poetry turf. Even though Yesterday I Saw the Sun was panned, I couldn’t help but feel jealous. She was already famous—why did she need poetry?—and her mother worked in publishing. Then I felt bad about my jealousy as she had suffered in rehab and wrote about bulimia and I did too. I actually saw Sheedy perform her poetry one night at a restaurant in Tribeca. My friend Becque, an actress, took me on a Monday evening (before 1991, before Sheedy’s book came out). We watched the star and writers from SNL and Late Night with David Letterman read their not-so-great poems.  The event was kind of like an open mic, but not for the likes of me. You had to work in TV or movies to get on the makeshift stage. Becque and I split an overpriced appetizer and nursed our Diet Cokes—no free refills.

I started writing “books” when I was ten from a hospital bed where I suffered from asthma. I made the books myself and gave them away. When Sheedy was twelve, she published her own children’s book She was Nice to Mice, which I’m assuming her mother was behind as well. I wasn’t particularly nice to mice that lived with me in my East Village hovel. I used glue traps (cruel, I know) to catch the rats. I spent a lot of time sleeping in my coat and boots because the slum lord was often late to fill the boilers with oil. Where did Sheedy live then? I’m not sure. I was hellbent on becoming a respected poet, and Becque wanted to become a renowned actress. Once while taking her boss’s dog for a walk through Central Park, a man ran after her. He introduced himself as a casting agent. Just as Becque reached into her tote (she always carried a box of headshots) the man said he loved the playful look of the Shih Tzu at the end of the leash she held in her hand. Ah, the indignities of our 20s!  Becque’s boss was already a celebrity, a comedian who could be writing jokes at any time in his mind.  She wasn’t allowed to speak to him first or look him in the eye. According to my friend, the Shih Tzu was a miserable and spoiled thing. She was surprised the casting director saw it as playful. Becque put the casting director’s card on the famous comedian’s desk, but her boss already knew casting directors and certainly didn’t want to compete for attention with his dog. 

Becque did a one woman show of my Barbie poems and sang at my wedding. Fame never came to her, but it should have. I can’t remember her astrological sign or her birthday. We had a falling out over something I also can’t remember. The conflict was probably easy to mend, but when I moved away from NYC we drifted apart. (Otherwise I would have asked her the name of that restaurant where Sheedy read her poems.) While Becque and I were struggling, Ally Sheedy was too. Though her fame kept growing, so did her troubles and addiction. For so long I had complicated feelings about Ally Sheedy—was it my inner misogyny? My class resentment? (Sorry, Ally!) Whatever it was, I’m over it now. Ally Sheedy is in the cast of Single Drunk Female, which I watched on Hulu earlier this year. Ally plays Carol, the mom of a young woman who goes to rehab. If I were an actor, I’d also be playing the mom or grandma at this point.  Back then, while Ally Sheedy and Becque and I were struggling, Boy George was too. I was never resentful of The Boy. I danced to his music. I wore a tee shirt with his face on it. His vulnerability was appealing to me. I share a birthday with the Olson Twins (b. 1986) and Tim Allen (b. 1953), but they are not my kind of celebrities. I find them unappealing and fear many people must find me unappealing as well. “On Being Born The Same Exact Day Of The Same Exact Year As Boy George” is buried in the second section of my first book Smile! I thought about making it the first poem in my selected Queen for a Day, but my friend Stephanie thought the book’s title (which invokes the word “queen”) might make an uneasy transition to a poem about Boy George. After cutting and rearranging, the poem does not appear in the book Queen for a Day at all which, to this day, I regret. Other poems of mine seem to also deserve palinodes. (Thank you, David!) My stanzas were often too tough on my mother. I see that now. And what about my breakup poems? Did that ex of mine really want to make me cry?


Headshot | Denise Duhamel

DENISE DUHAMEL’s most recent books of poetry are Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021) and Scald (2017). Blowout (2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a distinguished university professor in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.

“Boy George Palinode” is based on Denise’s earlier poem, which can be viewed here. Denise appears in the Spring 2023 issue of NAR (308.1), which can be accessed here.