Barbara Hamby Poems

Hit Title Date Added
Ode To Lil' Kim In Florence

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,

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

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


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?

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.

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.

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.


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.

Venus and Dogberry, A Match Made in New Jersey

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.