Barbara Hamby Poems

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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,

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.


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.

Mr. Pillow

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?

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.

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.

Six, Sex, Say

Do you think they wanted sex? asks the naive girl
in the film about a femme fatale who betrays
just about everyone stupid enough to get involved
with her, but since they are in New Zealand
it sounds like, Do you think they wanted six?
which is another question altogether,
and I know if I were doing drugs I would think
this was possibly a key to unraveling
the mysteries of the universe, because six in French
is cease, which could mean stop
to one of another linguistic persuasion,
as in cease and desist, though it could mean six
and desist, and you don't have to study the Kabbala
to know numbers are powerful, or how to explain
a system invented by Phoenician traders to keep track
of inventory being used by Einstein,
Dirac, Bohr to describe the mechanics of the universe,
and even the Marquis de Sade in his long exile
in the Bastille and other dungeons invented
a numerical code to hide his hideous imagination
from the thought police in that particular patch
of hell. Six, he might cry, but what would he mean,
especially if addressing his pregnant Italian
mistress, because six is s-e-i in Italian,
pronounced say. Say what? you might say. Girlfriend,
you don't need drugs, and you're absolutely right,
a conclusion I myself came to rather quickly,
because I'm crossing the Alps now like Psyche
on Cupid's wings, and in German it's s-e-c-h-s or sex again,
in other words, sex of one, half a dozen of another,
which for not-so-unfathomable reasons recalls
Rembrandt's etching of his friend Jan Six
who later became mayor of Amsterdam, a bustling port
in those days, and visited by one of the last ships
to leave Japan before it closed itself to the outside
world, and Rembrandt buying the final shipment
of Japanese paper in the west for 200 years. I see
him in his studio, counting each lovely sheet,
Jan Six perhaps in the next room smoking a pipe,
and I don't know what six is in Dutch,
but it's taking its place in the circle of sixes
girdling the globe, the Satanic triple six,
the two sixes in my college telephone number, the hidden
sixes in every deck of cards. Two plus four,
three plus three, chant the six-year-olds of the world,
all their sixes adding up to something, or why
would the psychic have told my friend
he would never have any money until his address
added up to six, because six is the money number,
the mysterious key to regeneration,
if not the alpha then the omega, and I who am living
at 15 quai de Bourbon know that one and five are six,
cease, sex, say, I'm in the money, if the money
is Paris and I'm a fool walking her golden streets.

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