Biography of Barbara Hamby
Barbara Hamby (born 1952) is an American poet, fiction writer, editor, and critic.
She was born in New Orleans and raised in Hawaii. Her poems have been printed in numerous publications and her first book of poetry, Delirium (1995), received literary recognition. She lives with her husband and fellow poet David Kirby in Tallahassee, Florida, where she is a writer-in-residence in the Creative Writing Program, and he a professor, both with the English Department at Florida State University.
Barbara Hamby Poems
The Mockingbird on the Buddha
The mockingbird on the Buddha says, Where's my seed, you Jezebel, where's the sunshine in my blue sky, where's the Hittite princess, Pharaoh's temple, where's the rain for the misery I love so much? The mockingbird on the Buddha scolds the tree for trying to stay straight in the hurricane of words blowing out of the cold north, wind like screams, night like brandy on the dark cut of my heart. The mockingbird on the Buddha, music is his life, he hears the tunes of the universe, cacophony of calypso, hacking cough in the black lung of desire; he's ruddy with lust, that sweet stepping puffed-up old grey bird o' mine. The mockingbird on the Buddha says, Eat up while the night is young. Have some peach cobbler, girl, have some fried oysters, have some Pouligny Montrachet, ma chère, for the night is coming, and you need meat on your bones to ride that wild horse. The mockingbird on the Buddha says, It's time for a change, little missy. You've been in charge too long. It's time for the bird to take over, because he stays up late, knows what night can be, past 12, past two, when trouble's dark and beautiful. You never knew what hit you, and that's the best feeling in the whole wide world. The mockingbird on the Buddha makes his nest inside my brain: he looks good in grey, gets fat on thought, he's my enemy, my Einstein, my ever-loving monkey boy, every monkey thought I blame on him, every night so sweet my body breaks apart like a Spanish galleon raining gold on the ocean floor.
Ode on My Wasted Youth
Is there anything so ridiculous as being twenty and carrying around a copy of Being and Nothingness, so boys will think you have a fine mind when really your brain is a whirling miasma, a rat's nest erected by Jehovah, Rousseau, Dante, George Eliot, and Bozo the Clown? I might as well have been in costume and on stage, I was so silly, but with no appreciation of my predicament, like a dim-bulb ingenue with a fluffy wig being bamboozled by a cad whose insincerity oozes from every orifice, but she thinks he's spiritual, only I was playing both roles, hoodwinking myself with ideas that couldn't and wouldn't do me much good, buying berets, dreaming of Paris and utter degradation, like Anaïs Nin under Henry Miller or vice versa. Other people were getting married and buying cars, but not me, and I wasn't even looking for Truth, just some kind of minor grip on the whole enchilada, and I could see why so many went for eastern cults, because of all religions Hinduism is the only one that seems to recognize the universal mess and attack it with a set of ideas even wackier than said cosmos, and I think of all my mistaken notions, like believing "firmament" meant "earth" and then finding out it meant "sky," which is not firm at all, though come to find out the substance under our feet is rather lacking in solidity as well. Oh, words, my very dear friends, whether in single perfection—mordant, mellifluous, multilingual—or crammed together in a gold-foil-wrapped chocolate valentine like Middlemarch, how could I have survived without you, the bread, the meat, the absolute confection, like the oracles at Delphi drinking their mad honey, opening my box of darkness with your tiny, insistent light.
I'm watching a space invasion movie in which a wife tells her pilot husband that she hugs his pillow when he is away. Well, sure, every girl does that, takes comfort in Mr. Pillow when her boyfriend is gone, but not when Bela Lugosi is breaking the lock on your prefab fifties bungalow. You fight him off, but he still knows where you are, and the police don't care, or they're bumbling incompetents, and your husband is big but not too bright; let's face it, he's not even a pilot, he's an actor and not a very good one at that, and what Mr. Pillow lacks in facial definition, he more than makes up for in his cuddle quotient, although there is the genital dilemma. Poor Mr. Pillow is sadly lacking in that area. I hate staying in hotels because of the king-size beds. I did not get married not to sleep with my husband. If I had, Mr. Pillow would do just as well, because he's certainly never sarcastic and he'd let me run my credit cards up as high as I want and never make me save for retirement, so I have to admit that I have, on occasion, used Mr. Pillow to make my husband jealous, as when he's sitting on his side of an enormous hotel bed, way over in a far island of dull yellow lamplight, reading a fascinating article on flyfishing in Antarctica or the destruction of life as we know it on Planet Earth, and I turn to Mr. Pillow, hold him tight and say, "Oh, Mr. Pillow, you know what a woman needs from a man." Getting no response from the outer reaches of Patagonia, I whisper, "Oh, Mr. Pillow, you make me blush." "Would you shut up about Mr. Pillow?" "Oh, Mr. Pillow!" I say as he flies across the room, and I get just what I want and maybe what I deserve. Sometimes it's so difficult to make these distinctions. Puritanism dies hard, and if there are ghouls lurking in the yard, who's to say they have any less right to be here than we do in our cozy little beds all the while looking at the closet door, thinking, Where are the cannibals, where do those zombies live?
Waltz, Swing, Cha-cha-cha
I'm like Carrie Nation at a whiskey bar when it comes to sex scenes in movies. Who needs to see Michael Douglas's flat ass again? I, for one, do not. I just sat through the new Bertolucci—The Dreamers—God, what a snooze. And he used to be God. Was there ever a sexier part in a movie than Sanda and Sandrelli glued together in that last tango in Paris? Or Sandrelli's rumba with herself—in both scenes fully clothed, I might add. In The Dreamers the girl's breasts were unrelenting. I wanted to scream, "Put on a shirt." When did the human body become obscene? In The Postman Always Rings Twice, when Lana Turner and John Garfield go around the living room in each other's arms, you know no one will come out of that room alive. And what about the giddy dance in Bande à part— erupting in the middle of so much black-and-white Godard-a-rama. What kind of magic was that? Once skin seemed so recherché, but what's dished up today is like stale saltines with water soup. Ginger Rogers said, "I did everything Fred did, but backwards and in heels." Ginger, that was only part of it. Remember The Gay Divorcee? You loathed Astaire until the scene when he waltzed with you—the black totem of his tux, your swirling skirt—one dance and bingo! You saw stars. In Pulp Fiction—Uma and John go dancing, but they might as well have had sex. Think of those girls in white go-go boots in cages—was that a sixties' male bondage fantasy or what? Hollywood directors, I implore you, yours and the porn industry are not one and the same—the breasts, the pecs, the suction cup mouths—Argghhh. I love documentaries these days because there's no bump and grind, only scenes of spelling bees, Robert McNamara explaining, Rio de Janerio blown apart by a city bus taken hostage, Louis Kahn's son trying to figure out his part in his father's life. My skin crawls like a rattlesnake when Bolero or Mood Indigo slithers out in full-metal Dolby, and the camera starts its obscene caress of the body doubles. Oh, give me Audrey Hepburn with her 100-watt smile, dancing with over-the-hill Astaire, or even The King and I— chrome dome Yul Brynner and tight-ass Deborah Kerr don't even sneak one little kiss, but their waltz is more romantic than Mickey Rouark's one-on-one with Kim Basinger in 9-1/2 Weeks. When the camera parts Joseph Cotton dancing with his first love in The Magnificent Ambersons, I know I'm in the hands of a master, Orson Welles's vertigo like the natives' wild dance to keep King Kong at bay. And what moviegoer doesn't dream of a hoedown the likes of which was last seen in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Sally Porter's lone quest in The Tango Lesson or scarf-clad Salome's dance that parted John the Baptist's body from his head. Oh, Cecil B. DeMille, now that's what I call a sex scene.
Venus and Dogberry, A Match Made in New...
Venus, you are a major babe, your hair way big, and wow, x-ray glasses are not needed with that see-though foxy zebra print chiffon bra and matching thong. Fucking-A, beautiful, I am not like that pansy Adonis. I want a bionic diva in my king-size vibrating bed. Come on over here, fair maid. Ain't that the way youse guys talk? Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas—everyday's a holiday with you. I just can't believe I could get a goddess in the sack. Let's toot a few lines tonight, my little summer plum, nip out for a juicy steak in my new candy-flake Eldorado, play footsie under the table. No Miller High Life and bar-b-q ribs for you, baby. Only the best. Put on your high heel sneakers, toots. I'm a Sherman tank with guns blazing for you.
When moviegoers die, instead of paradise they go to Paris, for where else can you find 200 screens showing nearly every film you'd want to see, not to mention movies like Captain Blood, in which bad boy Errol Flynn buckles his swash across the seven seas, and though I'm not dead, I may be in heaven, walking down the rue St. Antoine, making lists of my favorite movies, number one being Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, but I'm with Garbo at the end: "Where is my beast? Give me my beast." Oh, the beasts have it on the silver screen—Ivan the Terrible, M, Nosferatu, The Mummy—all misshapen, murderous monsters, because no matter how beautiful we are, inside we know ourselves to be blood-sucking vampires, zombies, freaks cobbled together with spare parts from the graveyard, and God some kind of Dr. Frankenstein or megalomaniacal director, part nice-guy Frank Capra, yes, but the other part Otto Preminger, bald, with Nazi tics, because the world is so beautiful and hideous at the same time, an identical Technicolor sky over us all, and the stars, who came up with that concept: the distance, the light, the paparazzi flash? And the dialogue, which is sometimes snappy or très poétique, as if written by Shakespeare himself, then at other times by the most guttural Neanderthal on the planet, grubbing his way across the landscape, noticing the sky only when it becomes his enemy or friend, dark with birds, not Hitchcock's, but dinner, throwing rocks into the sky, most of them missing their target, a few bouncing off his prognathous jaw, like Kubrick with his cavemen and spacemen existing on the same continuum, a Möbius strip to be sure but with Strauss, both Richard and Johann, in the background, and though it's winter there's a waltz in the air as I walk through the Place des Vosges, and I'm still trying to come up with number two, maybe 400 Blows or Breathless, because here I am, after all in Paris still expecting to see Belmondo and Seberg racing down the street, cops after them, bullets flying, and maybe I am in heaven, but I'll always be waiting for Godard.
The Dream of the Dacha
You are walking in a deep forest of evergreens and oaks, leaves muffling your steps, mud soaking your pink satin shoes. Who wears silk shoes to walk in the woods? You do. You were at a party, drank champagne and danced to violins, the notes soaring like birds out of the open windows and into the summer night, but that was hours ago, and now you are on a path, or you think there might be a path. You see it and then you don't, but the moonlight comes from behind the clouds, and its trail shimmers in the woods, and you think of mangata, the Swedish word for the path moonlight makes on water. Where are you? Sweden? No, Russia, you are deep in a forest, and there are branches you must push away, but they still tear at your dress, almost like moonlight itself, and you hear small animals scrabbling through the brambles on either side of the path. In a fairy tale they would be escorts from their queen who is waiting for you, has been waiting all your life to show you how to crack the mirror of the present moment, grow wings and fly into another world, a planet where there are no doors or windows or walls, but this is no fairy tale, and the animals have sharp teeth that glimmer in the moon's reflection, and there are bears, ferocious in their brown pelts teeming with shit and gnats and flies. Do you know what flowers are at your feet? You can't see the tiny white cups or yellow stars like scattered light. You remember a poem, and you sing it as you walk, gossiping with the stoat who is running along side you, and when you are most lost you see a light in the distance, or maybe not. Perhaps it's a trick of moonlight on the leaves or a hallucination from poisoned wine, but your arms and legs are weightless, and you are running now as if someone were calling to you from the darkest part of the night. Is there a clearing where the trees thin? Is that a cottage? Yes, oh, yes, it is, and you knock at the door, and who answers? Your mother, but her hair is dark, and she hasn't forgotten how to laugh. She heats the samovar and cuts a slice of cake or maybe makes a sandwich of black bread and butter, and you sweeten your tea with varenye, a soupy jam with whole apricots swimming at the bottom of your cup, just as you have read of in novels. Your mother shows you her garden with its nine bean rows and tomatoes like rubies in the sun, because it is day now, and your brother is there, but he loves you again, and your sister is making mud pies as she did as a girl, though she is older and her hair is golden, and there is nothing to do all day but hunt for blackberries and make jam or bake bread or hike to the pool, swim, and dry off on the grass in the sun, which is sometimes lost behind dark clouds that rumble in the distance, and you smell the rain minutes before it begins to fall and run back to the cottage, sit in a chair, open a book, turn to the story of a grand estate, a comet, a prince, and a woman who thinks she knows her own heart but is only looking through a window at a summer storm that might never end.
Over-the-Hill Tenors after the Opera
Being a tenor is a young man's game, their light voices hitting the high notes, flat bellies like shields, because they have to slay the dragon, drink the poison, kiss the beautiful soprano but not in St. Petersburg tonight in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, for the tsar's officers are stuffed into white spandex pants, their penises like mummified fish under the expanse of their jerkins, and the hero Herman, who at least is in black spandex, but when he takes off his powdered wig, his greasy hair cannot disguise his bald pâté and his jowls, and though he puts his all into it, there is no disguising he is twenty years too old and forty pounds too heavy for the role, and I think of these tenors after the opera in an opulent bar all marble and chandeliers, knocking back vodkas and eating silver fish swimming in oil, because snacks become so much more important as the years progress not to mention drinks, or what else was Hamlet talking about in his famous soliloquy but figuring out how to make do, slogging along on our paths, and most of us would rather have a stiff drink than a bare bodkin and bear our fardels, because what else is there to do, though some go to God, bless their hearts, as we say in the South, because the world can be a horror show with knife-wielding lunatics behind every door, and most of the time they seem to be people in our own families, or why would the police look at the husband first when a wife is strangled or a father when a child disappears? Every day the newspaper headlines shout at us: human beings strangle, pistol whip, run over others in a drunken rage, and then there are the wedding announcements, the bright shining smiles, no slammed doors or drinks in faces yet, or maybe the tenors go home after the opera and drink alone, gazing at framed photos of themselves twenty years before, their jaws like granite and eyes shining, looking beyond the camera to a future just beyond the next room and down the street where it's raining now, but the sky will clear, and who's to say what will happen tomorrow or the day after or when Spring comes or next year or the year after year after year.
Ode to Lenin's Overcoat
In every Russian city or town a statue of Lenin stands on a central square with his overcoat blown back as if by a cold wind from Siberia as he strides into the Future with a capital "F." And then there's the body on display in the Kremlin, looking like nothing so much as a diplomat or a prosperous businessman in a dark suit, though he planted the bomb that would blow a hole the size of Asia in the twentieth century, and it was said that all he cared about besides the revolution was Beethoven and chess, the Appassionata wringing his heart as the four beautiful grand duchesses could not. We've all met those true believers who make you glad you're not the smartest person in the room because you wouldn't want to live with their hearts thumping in your chest, especially after the mass executions, and let's face it, you'd be in the gulag at best or shot against a basement wall for all your sins, which are words all emerald and scarlet, shimmering like cheap Christmas trash in drugstore aisles, though they might as well be sewn into the seams of your corset if you wore one, and maybe the czar was out of touch, but the Bolsheviks, Mein Gott in Himmel, or whatever it is the Russians say. Then there was Stalin, but I'm getting ahead of myself, as was Gogol when he wrote the ending of his story, in which the dead clerk, who'd had his new overcoat stolen, comes back as a spectre on a freezing night and grabs the judge who wouldn't help him in life, demands his fur coat, which the judge, turning white, gives up with a scream, jumps in his coach, and speeds away, trembling like a toy poodle, while the dead clerk pulls the collar around his neck, warm at last in the Arctic night. In Gogol's story he still haunts St. Petersberg, but it can't be the timid clerk, for this phantom is tall, has moustaches and giant hands that look as if they could strangle the czar and all his guards, send Mandelstam to his gulag and sentence a man to death for a crime that in his dreams he would wake from screaming like the conscript as a bullet pierces his chest, knowing he will never hear his mother's voice again or have sex with his Sonya or even eat a hot meal, the butter on a piece of black bread dipped in soup swimming with meat and potatoes, because he's lying in the dirty snow crying as he had when his father beat him until he whimpered like a dog on the kitchen floor, his mother already there.
Marina is trying to describe Raskolnikov's interior state and uses the word toshno, which she says comes from the same word as "to vomit," which makes me think of Sartre's La Nausee and the German Weltschmertz, but Marina says, it also has an element of nostalgia or longing, thinking about how at one time you felt happy but can no longer feel that way, though from my perch it's difficult not to see Raskolnikov's malady as a combination of poor nutrition and too much philosophy, or at least that's how I think of myself in my twenties, thin from vegetarianism and grinding anxiety, maddened by my parents' fundamentalism, shucked off but lurking in the corners of my brain, though in the ensuing days I begin to think of other emotions that English has no word to express: to take something bad, for example, such as a firing, broken heart, insult, and turn it into something so luminous that you are grateful to the ex-wife, nasty co-worker, unfaithful lover for the sneer, slag, the stab in the back. Or the feeling of sadness after finishing a book you adore because the thrill of first reading those glorious words is gone forever. Or the feeling when you realize someone hates you, so that a person, who was once nothing to you, is now the focus of your attention. Walking down the avenues of St. Petersburg or lying in an Italian bed, you think about the river you have just seen or the painting that until now has been a two-inch square in a book, but that afternoon you saw the wall covered with a luminous fresco, colors so vivid that the crazy painter could walk in from the next room covered with splatters of red and green and you wouldn't be surprised, but soon you will be sitting in your garden at home, watching the wrens make a nest in a paint can hooked to a tree, and then in thirty or so years, if you're lucky, you will be so old your body will be giving up, shoulders bent, with no taste for food, and what is the word for that, and will you know it when it's whispered in your ear?
Thus Spake the Mockingbird
The mockingbird says, hallelujah, coreopsis, I make the day bright, I wake the night-blooming jasmine. I am the duodecimo of desperate love, the hocus pocus passion
Ode on Dictionaries
A-bomb is how it begins with a big bang on page one, a calculator of sorts whose centrifuge begets bedouin, bamboozle, breakdance, and berserk, one of my mother's favorite words, hard knock
The Tawdry Masks of Women
Every bus ride is theater, giddy schoolgirls trying on the tawdry masks of women, flirting with my nephew, red and green lights, shop windows piled high, gold
Letter to a Lost Friend
There must be a Russian word to describe what has happened between us, like ostyt, which can be used for a cup of tea that is too hot, but after you walk to the next room,
Letter to a Lost Friend
There must be a Russian word to describe what has happened
between us, like ostyt, which can be used
for a cup of tea that is too hot, but after you walk to the next room,
and return, it is too cool; or perekhotet,
which is to want something so much over months
and even years that when you get it, you have lost
the desire. Pushkin said, when he saw his portrait by Kiprensky,
"It is like looking into a mirror, but one that flatt