Ten Poems


Ode to Money

While looking at the frescoes of the life of St. Peter
    in the Brancacci chapel in Florence,
I hear Megan say the theme of the series is money,
    and I think, you could probably say the same
about most of our lives, having it, getting it,
    spending it, hoarding it, lording it over others,
letting it slip through our fingers, and while most of us
    are not usurers like Felice Brancacci,
who had to commission a chapel to avoid going to hell,
    making ends meet is something that occupies
our minds from time to time, and if time is money,
    is all money eternally present,
or is it the fourth dimension:
    height, width, depth, and money?
I’m no Einstein, but I’d say yes, or why are money
    and art thick as thieves,
and while Jesus said render unto Caesar
    that which is Caesar’s and to God
that which is God’s, sometimes it’s not easy
    to figure out which is which, or who is who,
as when Pope Pius made his deal with Hitler,
    or when tax time rolls around, who’s god there,
you or the IRS? Because in the Brancacci Chapel,
    when Jesus sends St. Peter out to fetch
a piece of gold from a fish’s mouth, I must say
    the fish looks as surprised as anyone
he’s ejecting coins like a slot machine in Reno.
    Most of us have to toil in pretty stony soil
to earn our daily bread, filling out forms,
    counting money, sitting in meetings
so boring our brains turn to liquid
    and drip out our ears, writing gorgeous
sentences for those who would not recognize
    beauty if it announced itself
in full Louis XIV Sun King regalia
    and handed out party favors.
Half the time I’m counting my cash
    like Jacob Marley in hell
and the other half throwing it out the windows
    of Cadillac convertibles while I cruise
through Memphis with Elvis. Oh, simoleons, spondulicks,
    shekels, mazuma, what I wouldn’t give for a grand,
a C-note, a sawbuck, two bits, an IOU from anyone,
    even Zelda Fitzgerald, who would probably not
be whispering “Waste not, want not,” or “A penny saved
    is a penny earned” into my pearly ear.
In Rome looking at Caravaggio’s The Calling
    of St. Matthew, there’s the money theme again
because Matthew and his repulsive cronies
   are counting coins on a table as Jesus
holds out his hand to beckon the tax collector
   into his doomed if divine fold,
and you’ve got to wonder what enticement
    he could be offering such a one
as Matthew, because let’s face it,
    he would not be saying to anybody, anyway,
any time, you gotta have money, honey,
    if you wanna dance with me.
 
 
 
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 ingénue
              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 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 flame.
 
 
 
Ode to American English
 
I was missing English one day, American, really,
              with its pill-popping Hungarian goulash of everything
from Anglo-Saxon to Zulu, because British English
              is not the same, if the paperback dictionary
I bought at Brentano’s on the Avenue de l’Opéra
              is any indication, too cultured by half. Oh, the English
know their delphiniums, but what about doowop, donuts,
              Dick Tracy, Tricky Dick? With their elegant Oxfordian
accents, how could they understand my yearning for the hotrod,
              hotdog, hot flash vocabulary of the U.S. of A.,
the fragmented fandango of Dagwood’s everyday flattening
              of Mr. Beasley on the sidewalk, fetuses floating
on billboards, drive-by monster hip-hop stereos shaking
              the windows of my dining room like a 7.5 earthquake,
Ebonics, Spanglish, “you know” used as comma and period,
              the inability of 90% of the population to get the present perfect:
I have went, I have saw, I have tooken Jesus into my heart,
              the battle cry of the Bible Belt, but no one uses
the King James anymore, only plain-speak versions,
              in which Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead, says,
“Dude, wake up,” and the L-man bolts up like a B-movie
              mummy. “Whoa, I was toasted.” Yes, ma’am,
I miss the mongrel plenitude of American English, its fall-guy,
              rat-terrier, dog-pound neologisms, the bomb of it all,
the rushing River Jordan backwoods mutability of it, the low-rider,
              boom-box cruise of it, from New Joisey to Ha-wah-ya
with its sly dog, malasada-scarfing beach blanket lingo
              to the ubiquitous Valley Girl’s like-like stuttering,
shopaholic rant. I miss its quotidian beauty, its querulous
              back-biting righteous indignation, its preening rotgut
flag-waving cowardice. Suffering Succotash, sputters
              Sylvester the Cat; sine die, say the pork-bellied legislators
of the swamps and plains. I miss all those guys, their Tweety-bird
              resilience, their Doris Day optimism, the candid unguent
of utter unhappiness on every channel, the midnight televangelist
              euphoric stew, the junk mail, voice mail vernacular.
On every boulevard and rue I miss the Tarzan cry of Johnny
              Weissmuller, Johnny Cash, Johnny B. Goode,
and all the smart-talking, gum-snapping hard-girl dialogue,
              finger popping x-rated street talk, sports babble,
Cheetos, Cheerios, chili dog diatribes. Yeah, I miss them all,
              sitting here on my sidewalk throne sipping champagne
verses lined up like hearses, metaphors juking, nouns zipping
              in my head like Corvettes on Dexedrine, French verbs
slitting my throat, yearning for James Dean to jump my curb.
 
 
 
How to Pray
 
Falling down on your knees is the easy part, like drinking
              a glass of cold water on a hot day, the parched straw
of your throat flooded, your knees hitting the ground,
              a prizefighter in the final rounds. You’re bloody,
your bones like iron ties, hands trembling in the dust. What
              do you do with your hands? Clasp them together
as if you’re keeping your heart between your palms,
              like their namesakes in the desert oasis,
because that’s what you’re looking for now, a place
              where you can rest. It has been a dry ride for months,
sand filling your mouth, crusting your half-blind eyes,
              and you need to speak to someone—though who
you don’t really know. Pardon is on your mind. Perhaps
              you could talk to your mother. You are fifteen
and think her life is over. You don’t say it, but you think it,
              and she’s ten years younger than you are now,
her hair still dark. How do you thank her for waking up
              each morning and taking on a day that would kill you
and not just one but thousands? How do you thank her
              for the way she tossed words around and made them
spin and laugh and do cartwheels on the lawn?
              And your father, he’s the one who loved poetry,
bought the book that opened your world to you
              like someone cutting into a birthday cake the gods
have baked just for her. Do you talk to him about not caring
              and teaching you that same cool touch?
And King James, how do you thank him for all the words
              his scribes took from Wycliffe and Tyndall, and Keats
for his odes, and Neruda for his. But this wasn’t meant to be a prayer
              of thanksgiving but a scourge with a hair shirt and whips
and bowls of gruel. But is it blood the gods need,
              or should your offering be all you have—words
and too many of them to count on the fingers pressed to your lips
              or maybe not enough and never the right ones.
 
 
 
Nose
 
I am trying on an especially evil-looking pair of shoes
when the shopgirl points to the middle of her face and says,
 
“This is called what?” For a moment I draw a blank as I search
my mind for the Italian word for snoot, schnozzola, beak,
 
but when “il naso” finally surfaces, I realize
that she is Italian and probably knows the Italian word
 
for nose, so what she wants is the English,
which is relatively easy for me, so I say “Nose.”
 
“Nose,” she replies, smiling, “You have a beautiful nose.”
I am looking at the shoes on my feet. I have dangerous feet,
 
especially in these particular shoes, but my nose
is rather white bread, too much like my skinflint grandmother’s
 
for me to ever be entirely ecstatic about it,
and this girl’s is spectacular, an aquiline viaduct
 
spanning the interval from her eyes to her delicious lips.
A friend once told me, “My sister paid $2,000
 
for a nose like yours, a perfect shiksa nose,
but it ended up looking like Bob Hope’s.”
 
Suddenly I feel as if I have no nose, like Gogol’s Kovelev
riding around St. Petersburg looking for his proboscis.
 
What is a nose? Obviously not simply a smeller, sniffer,
or a mere searcher out of olfactory sensation,
 
but something more—an aesthetic appendage to the facial
construction, a slope from brow to philtrum,
 
with symmetrical phalanges. Aren’t I precise, who knows
nothing about having an unsatisfactory nose, or ever thinking
 
about it for one second? Perhaps my offending part
is somewhere else, or am I as hapless as Gogol’s hero—
 
with too little nose for my purposes, like Miss Ruby Diamond,
the richest woman in my town, who lost her nose to cancer,
 
and had two counterfeits, one lifelike and the other
a simple plastic flap to hide the scar of ninety years.
 
A nose is a nose is a nose is a nose,
Gertrude Stein did not say and why would she
 
as it is obviously untrue? Though each nose is an island
in the sea of the face, sticking out in a more or less
 
inadequate fashion. Like Cyrano, I marshal my couplets,
ragtag though they be, to celebrate all noses unloved,
 
those lost to disease or, like Kovelev’s, inadvertently
misplaced and the nose of the shopgirl on the Via Roma
 
in Firenze, her eyes red from either smoking pot or heartbreak
and the many other indignities gathered like humps on our backs,
 
which we touch for luck, as if floods, bombings, murders
could only happen to others who are beautiful and pure.
 
 
 
Ode to Skimpy Clothes and August in the Deep South
 
A young woman is walking with her boyfriend, and it’s summer
            in the South, which is like being in a sauna
but hotter and stickier, and she’s wearing a tank top
            and a cotton skirt so thin I can see her black
underpants, and this is the way I dressed in my early twenties,
            partly from poverty and partly because my body
was so fresh that I couldn’t imagine not showing it off—
            marzipan arms, breasts like pink cones of vanilla
soft-serve ice cream, hips more like brioche than flesh,
            and the sound track to those times I can conjure
on my inner radio on a day in August—”Wild Horses,”
            and “All I Want,” Joni Mitchell and Mick Jagger
singing a duet for me, but I was in love with Bartok, too,
            and Beethoven’s trios, moving through those sultry days
to that celestial music, going to the campus cinema for the air
            conditioning and Wild Strawberries and La Dolce Vita,
skin brown from taking the Chevy pickup to the coast,
            at night putting the fan in the window and reading
thick novels until three or four, and one morning waking at noon
            to a cardinal screaming, the red male hovering,
flying above, my cat with the brown female in her mouth,
            and when I release the bird she falls on the grass as if dead,
but she’s in shock, and I hold the cat, who wants her again,
            but then the bird comes to, hops across the grass
and flies off with her mate, and seeing that girl’s black panties
            under her skirt brings back those days with such a fierce ache
that I might as well be lost in the outskirts of Rome, a little girl
            making up a story of seeing the Virgin and everyone
wanting to believe that God has appeared in the parking lot
            of an abandoned store, the graffiti a message, something
divine in the plastic bags and fast-food boxes rolling in the wind.
 
 
 
Ode to the Triple
 
Valium, Librium, and Tylenol with codeine—that’s what Velma
            the head nurse at the Florida House of Representatives
would dish out when you came in with your period, a hangover,
            a cold, a broken arm, a hangnail. She called it the Triple,
as in It Sounds like you need a Triple or That calls for a Triple.
            God, the Triple was beautiful. You could do your job,
but instead of sitting at your squalid Bartleby desk
            and turning into a cockroach while proofreading
legislative bills commending beauty queens and putting potheads
            in prison, you would be floating on a cloud so silvery
that the words were a kind of neo-beatnik Dadaist poetry,
            and our goddess was Velma, a chunky bleached blonde,
who knew what was going on, so you couldn’t show up every day
            or even every week, unless you were a big shot
representative from Palatka, say, or Steinhatchee or Miami Lakes
            in a sherbet-cololored polyester leisure suit. Oh, they could
go in any time they wanted and get a quadruple Triple,
            or so we in the proofreading pool fantasized,
because we needed a Triple to get from eight o’clock to lunch,
            when we were released from our cubicles
for sixty minutes, which seemed like sixty seconds, and Cindy
            used to say she wanted them to pay her every hour,
just pop the bills and change down on her desk,
            so when she got fed up she could walk out with her cash
and never come back, and we couldn’t imagine someone
            staying at a job so long they could retire, but Velma retired,
and the party was like an inauguration, because everyone
            who was anyone was there and plenty of nobodies, too,
stiff flower arrangements, and a bowl of orange juice and ginger ale
            punch, and then she was gone like a dream.
and the new nurse was doling out plain Tylenol, which changed
            nothing, in fact made it worse, because when your head
or uterus calmed down, you’d go back to the trenches
            and wait to be blown apart by a German howitzer
or chewed by rats, so those of us who were able to escape
            might be forgiven for asking how it happened that one day
the door to that particular realm of hell opened and then closed
            behind us, much the way Burt Lancaster’s hands gripped
Tony Curtis’s in Trapeze when he did the triple somersault
            in the air or Babe Ruth’s as he clenched the bat
and hit a home run with the bases loaded, but sometimes
            I find myself saying, “Velma, I need a Triple,”
and she comes down like a Caravaggio angel and pops them
            in my mouth and for a couple of hours I feel
as if I could do anything if only I knew what that could possibly be.
 
 
 
Ode to Airheads, Hairdos, Trains to and from Paris
 
For an hour on the train from Beauvais to Paris
            Nord I’m entertained by the conversation of three
American girls about their appointment the next
            day with a hairdresser, and if there is a subtext
to this talk, I’m missing it, though little else. Will bangs
            make them look too dykey? And layers, sometimes they hang
like the fur of a shaggy dog. Streaks, what about blond
            streaks? “Whore,” they scream, laughing like a coven of wild
parrots, and after they have exhausted the present
            tense, they go on to the remembrance of hairdos past—
high school proms, botched perms’ late-night drunken cuts. The Loch Ness
            Monster would be lost in their brains as in a vast, starless
sea, but they’re happy, will marry, overpopulate
            the earth, which you can’t say about many poets,
I think a few weeks later taking the 84
            bus to the hairdresser, where I’ll spend three long hours
and leave with one of the best cuts of my life from Guy,
            who has a scar on his right cheek and is Israeli,
but before that I pass a hotel with a plaque—
            Attila József, great Hungarian poet, black
moods and penniless, lived there ten years before he threw
            himself under a train in Budapest. If we knew
what the years held, would we alter our choices, take the train
            at three-twenty instead of noon, walk in the rain
instead of taking the Métro? The time-travel films
            I adore speak to this very question: overwhelmed
by disease and war, the future sends Bruce Willis back
            to stop a madman. I could be waiting by the track
as József arrives in Paris, not with love but money,
            which seemed to be the missing ingredient, the honey
he needed to sweeten his tea. Most days I take the B
            line of the RER, and one of the stops is Drancy,
the way station for Jews rounded up by the Nazis
            before being sent in trains to the camps, but we can’t see
those black-and-white figures in the Technicolor
            present like ghosts reminding us with their pallor
how dearly our circus of reds and golds has been purchased
            and how in an instant all those colors could be erased.
 
 
 
Ode to Hardware Stores
 
Where have all the hardware stores gone—dusty, sixty-watt
            warrens with wood floors, cracked linoleum,
poured concrete painted blood red? Where are Eppes, Terry Rosa,
            Yon’s, Flint—low buildings on South Monroe,
Eighth Avenue, Gaines Street with their scent of paint thinner,
            pesticides, plastic hoses coiled like serpents
in a garden paradisal with screws in buckets or bins
            against a brick wall with hand-lettered signs
in ball-point pen—Carriage screws, two dozen for fifty cents
            long vicious dry-wall screws, thick wood screws
like peasants digging potatoes in fields, thin elegant trim
            screws—New York dames at a backwoods hick
Sunday School picnic. O universal clevis pins, seven holes
            in the shank, like the seven deadly sins.
Where are the men—Mr. Frank, Mr. Piggot, Tyrone, Hank,
            Ralph—sunburnt with stomachs and no asses,
men who knew the mythology of nails, Zeuses enthroned
            on an Olympus of weak coffee, bad haircuts,
and tin cans of galvanized casing nails, sinker nails, brads,
            20-penny common nails, duplex head nails, flooring nails
like railroad spikes, finish nails, fence staples, cotter pins,
            roofing nails—flat-headed as Floyd Crawford,
who lived next door to you for years but would never say hi
            or make eye contact. What a career in hardware
he could have had, his blue-black hair slicked back with brilliantine,
            rolling a toothpick between his teeth while sorting
screw eyes and carpet tacks. Where are the hardware stores,
            open Monday through Friday, Saturday till two?
No night hours here, like physicists their universe mathematical
            and pure in its way: dinner at six, Rawhide at eight,
lights out at ten, kiss in the dark, up at five for the subatomic world
            of toggle bolts, cap screws, hinch-pin clips, split-lock
washers. And the tools—saws, rakes, wrenches, ratchets, drills,
            chisels, and hose heads, hose couplings, sandpaper
(garnet, production, wet or dry), hinges, wire nails, caulk, nuts,
            lag screws, pulleys, vise grips, hexbolts, fender washers,
all in a primordial stew of laconic talk about football, baseball,
            who’ll start for the Dodgers, St. Louis, the Phillies,
the Cubs? Walk around the block today and see their ghosts:
            abandoned lots, gratfitti’d windows, and tacked
to backroom walls, pin-up calendars almost decorous
            in our porn-riddled galaxy of Walmarts, Seven-Elevens,
stripmalls like strip mines or a carrion bird’s curved beak
            gobbling farms, meadows, wildflowers, drowsy afternoons
of nothing to do but watch dust motes dance through a streak
            of sunlight in a darkened room. If there’s a second coming,
I want angels called Lem, Nelson, Rodney, and Cletis gathered
            around a bin of nails, their silence like hosannahs,
hallelujahs, amens swelling from cinderblock cathedrals
            drowning our cries of bigger, faster, more, more, more.
 
 
 
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
clerk of clichés that she is, at the moment going ape
            the current rave in the fundamentalist landscape
disguised as her brain, a rococo lexicon
            of Deuteronomy, Job, gossip, spritz, and neocon
ephemera all wrapped up in a pop burrito
            of movie star shenanigans, like a stray Cheeto
found in your pocket the day after you finish the bag,
            tastier than any oyster and champagne fueled fugue
gastronomique you have been pursuing in France
            for the past four months. This 82-year-old’s rants
have taken their place with the dictionary I bought
            in the fourth grade, with so many gorgeous words I thought
I’d never plumb its depths. Right the first time, little girl,
            yet here I am still at it, trolling for pearls,
Japanese words vying with Bantu in a goulash
            I eat daily, sometimes gagging, sometimes with relish,
kleptomaniac in the candy store of language,
            slipping words in my pockets like a non-smudge
lipstick that smears with the first kiss. I’m the demented
            lady with sixteen cats. Sure, the house stinks, but those damned
mice have skeedaddled, though I kind of miss them, their cute
            little faces, the whiskers, those adorable gray suits.
No, all beasts are welcome in my menagerie, ark
            of inconsolable barks and meows, sharp-toothed shark,
OED of the deep ocean, sweet compendium
            of candy bars—Butterfingers, Mounds, and M&Ms—
packed next to the tripe and gizzards, trim and tackle
            of butchers and bakers, the painter’s brush and spackle,
quarks and black holes of physicists’ theory. I’m building
            my own book as a mason makes a wall or a gelding
runs around the track—brick by brick, step by step, word by word,
            jonquil by gerrymander, syllabub by greensward,
swordplay by snapdragon, a never-ending parade
            with clowns and funambulists in my own mouth, homemade
treasure chest of tongue and teeth, the brain’s roustabout, rough
            unfurler of tents and trapezes, off-the-cuff
unruly troublemaker in the high church museum
            of the world. O mouth—boondoggle, auditorium,
viper, gulag, gumbo pot on a steamy August
            afternoon—what have you not given me? How I must
wear on you, my Samuel Johnson in a frock coat,
            lexicographer of silly thoughts, billy goat,
X-rated pornographic smut factory, scarfer
            of snacks, prissy smirker, late-night barfly,
you are the megaphone by which I bewitch the world
            or don’t as the case may be. O chittering squirrel,
ziplock sandwich bag, sound off, shut up, gather your words
            into bouquets, folios, flocks of black and flaming birds.
 
 
 

 


“Ode to Money” is from Alphabet of Desire, Orchises Press, 1999.

“Ode on My Wasted Youth,” “Ode to American English,” “How to Pray,” “Nose,” “Ode to Skimpy Clothes and August in the Deep South,” “Ode to the Triple,” “Ode to Airheads, Hairdos, Trains to and from Paris,” “Ode to Hardware Stores,” and “Ode on Dictionaries” are from On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

Barbara Hamby is the author of five books of poems, most recently On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (2014) published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, which also published Babel (2004) and All-Night Lingo Tango (2009). She was a 2010 Guggenheim fellow in Poetry and her book of short stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, won the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her poems have appeared in many magazines, including The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Yale Review. She has also edited an anthology of poems, Seriously Funny (Georgia, 2009), with her husband David Kirby. She teaches at Florida State University where she is Distinguished University Scholar.

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7 thoughts on “Ten Poems

  1. Daniela Gioseffi

    These Barbara Hamby poems are good, accessible poetry, candid and imaginative, straight forward and inventive, human, funny and sad. Tart like good lemonade for the spirit.I’ve enjoyed reading them, more than I enjoy reading many poets of our time! There is wit, loss, frank irony, humor and wisdom. Hamby’s poetry is enjoyable to read, easy to understand, and yet wildly imaginative and original. Her poems hit the mark for me. I identify and feel I’ve shared such thoughts, moments and memories.

  2. Jean Ellison

    The smell of that store – its oiled wooden floors, the bins of nails and screws and amazing fasteners. I’ll never forget going there with my Father. I loved it. Sometimes my Grandfather, a carpenter, would take me to get his wood, or the reeds for caning chairs. It was a wonderland! Thank you!

  3. Jacqueline Lapidus

    What wonderful poems, what delirium of lists and languages! From the details of living and traveling in Paris (which I did, too, for nearly 19 years) to the tool boxes, barrels, bars and boys of my now-distant youth, Hamby lays it on like the most lavish buffet and lets the reader pig out. Thank you for the feast!

  4. Charlene Neely

    Barbara Hamby’s poems are like Norman Rockwell’s paintings, filled with details many of us take for granted until her pen draws them into your memory. I especially loved the Ode to Hardware Stores that brought back memories of my youth spent waiting for my Dad to shoo the angels out the door and lock up so that we could start the counting of screws and nails and cotter pins for the yearly inventory. A sort of coming of age when we were allowed to do this privilege instead of our usual chore of sprinkling sawdust and sweeping it up again. Thank you Barbara for the memories.

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