Barbara Hamby: Selected Poems

The following poems are from On the Street of Divine Love.


Ode to Forgetting the Year

Forget the year, the parties where you drank too much,
said what you thought without thinking, danced so hard
you dislocated your hip, fainted in the kitchen,
while Gumbo, your hosts’ Jack Russell terrier,
looked you straight in the eye, bloomed into a boddhisattva,
lectured you on the Six Perfections while drunk people
with melting faces gathered around your shimmering corpse.

Then there was February when you should have been decapitated
for stupidity. Forget those days and the ones
when you faked a smile so stale it crumbled like a cookie
down the side of your face. Forget the crumbs and the mask
you wore and the tangle of Scotch tape you used to keep it in place,

but then you’d have to forget spring with its clouds of jasmine,
wild indigo, and the amaryllis with their pink and red faces,
your garden with its twelve tomato plants, squash, zucchini,
nine kinds of peppers, okra, and that disappointing row of corn.
Forget the corn, its stunted ears and brown oozing tips. Forgive
the worms that sucked their flesh like zombies
and forgive the bee that stung your arm, then stung your face, too.

While we’re at it, let’s forget 1974. You should have died that year,
or maybe you did. Resurrection’s a trick
you learned early. And 2003. You could have called in sick
those twelve months—sick and silly, illiterate and numb,

and summer, remember the day at the beach when the sun
began to explain Heidegger to you while thunderclouds
rumbled up from the horizon like Nazi submarines? The fried oysters
you ate later at Angelo’s were a consolation and the margaritas
with salt and ice. Remember how you begged the sullen teenaged waitress
to bring you a double, and double that, pleasepleaseplease.

And forget all the crime shows you watched,
the DNA samples, hair picked up with tweezers
and put in plastic bags, the grifters, conmen, and the husbands
who murdered their wives for money or just plain fun.
Forget them and the third grade and your second boyfriend,
who loved Blonde on Blonde as much as you did
but wanted something you wouldn’t be able to give anyone for years.

Forget movies, too, the Hollywood trash in which nothing happened
though they were loud and fast, and when they were over
time had passed, which was a blessing in itself. O blessed
is Wong Kar-wai and his cities of blue and rain.
Blessed is David Lynch, his Polish prostitutes juking
to “The Loco-Motion” in a kitschy fifties bungalow. Blessed
is Leonard Cohen, his “Hallelujah” played a thousand times
as you drove through Houston, its vacant lots
exploding with wild flowers and capsized shopping carts.

So forget the pizzas you ate, the ones you made from scratch
and the Domino’s ordered in darkest December,
the plonk you washed it down with and your Christmas tree
with the angel you found in Naples and the handmade Santas
your sons brought home from school, the ones with curling eyelashes
and vampire fangs. Forget their heartbreaks
and your sleepless nights like gift certificates
from The Twilight Zone, because January’s here,
and the stars are singing a song you heard on a street corner once,
so wild the pavement rippled, and it called you
like the night calls you with his monsters and his marble arms.


Ode to Lil’ Kim in Florence

We’re in a taxi on the way to see Andrea del Sarto’s Last Supper
which was in the country when it was painted
but now in the suburbs beyond the old city wall in an ex-convent,
and our driver turns the radio to an English station
playing an American song, yes, Lil’ Kim’s “How Many Licks,”
and Miss Kim, you are not singing about throwing punches,
but for a while I don’t notice because my husband
is talking about where we will eat dinner, but like a bullet
the lyrics penetrate the armor of the city, the fresco, the tagliata
and punterelle I’ll eat later, and I’m crossing my legs twice,
once at the knees and then at the ankles, but what do I know,
because my dad never threw me out of the house,
and I’ve never lived on the streets, and your life, Kim, is like an opera,
Lucia di Lammermoor maybe, but you’re not taking Enrico’s shit,
and when Edgardo breaks into your phony wedding you grab him
and run off to Paris but not before you sing the mad scene,
because what’s Lucia without it, all the blood and tattoos, and you
could never sing Mimi, because she’s such a simp. No, Musetta’s
your gal, so Lil’ Kim put on your Queen of the Night gown,
the corset and headpiece with shooting stars, or your Lulu rags,
Jack the Ripper leading her to his knife, or your Lil’ Kim hot pants,
but remember, Kim, we girls need some secrets while we fix
our lipstick, straighten our push-up bras and little black dresses,
because we are riding the lonely streets in taxis, limos,
buses, and sports cars, hair a little messy, dying for the night to open up
dark and mysterious like a song only time can sing.


Ode to the Messiah, Thai Horror Movies, and Everything I Can’t Believe

When I decide to go to hear Handel’s Messiah in London
at the composer’s parish church, my husband says
he’d rather see a Thai horror movie, so we plan to meet later
at our favorite Moroccan lair that serves huge platters
of olives and fried goat brains, but here I am sitting in the pew
next the president of the Handel Society, who tells me
I’ve taken the seat of his wife who has another engagement,
and I see her sitting next to my husband watching
Shimabam Rampapoolajib rip the throat of a nubile virgin,
then run through a seedy bar in Bangkok
and down an alley way to the Chao Phraya River,
much like the river of music flowing over me,
and the president of the Handel Society explains that in England
they stand for the Hallelujah chorus, and I assure him
we Yanks do, too, and I think of the last time I heard this music
I was with my mother in Honolulu and we both stood
as hundreds of voices soared over us like the gods exhaling
a golden brew of divine moonshine, but here in London
the chorus is only 20 voices, like a group of friends whispering
the secret to each other and maybe I’m wrong
about the Thai movie, because I’m often wrong about almost everything,
for example politics—I can’t believe my mother
continues to vote against her own best interests because her father,
dead over 50 years, voted that way, and why do people
have multiple sex partners because everyone knows about germs,
not to mention Staphylococcus, fungus, MRSA, nits,
river blindness, and Ebola, and maybe the flying monsters
over Bangkok are more moving than sitting in this church
where the great musician sat and listened to his glorious aria,
“I know that my Redeemer liveth,” and though I don’t believe
those stories anymore than I believe in Mothra over Tokyo, I do believe
in the notes swimming over me like a river of fireflies
on a summer evening, and when the concert is over I say goodbye
to my new friend, who during the intermission
introduced me to all his friends, men in three-piece pinstriped suits
and tidy haircuts, and I walk out into the December evening,
and if there isn’t a flurry of snow there should be, and I am so alone
in this chilly night walking to the Oxford tube stop,
and I would love to see Satan bursting through the starry firmament,
but there are no stars, only a stew of fog, and let’s face it
all our monsters are bivouacked in our chests like dyspeptic soldiers
in a mercenary army, hungry, covered in warts
or contagion of some kind, too walleyed and stupid to see
they are flesh and blood and there’s a glorious song
somewhere inside waiting to be sung in a church or an opera house
or even a pub where One-Eyed Walter is playing an accordion,
while a drunk warbles on a rusty flute, and Janet, the scullery maid,
her sweet soprano like a tiny bird, fluttering out
of a corner so dark it might be mistaken for an entrance to Hell.

Barbara Hamby has published five books of poetry, most recently Babel (2004), All-Night Lingo Tango (2009), and On the Street of Divine Love (2014), all from the University of Pittsburgh Press. In 2010 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry and her book of short stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and was published by the University of Iowa Press. She also edited (with her husband David Kirby) an anthology of poetry, Seriously Funny (Georgia, 2009). She is Distinguished University Scholar at Florida State University.

Barbara will be reading at the Miami Book Fair (November 16-23). Visit her website here.

Barbara Hamby

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