|On the Street of Divine Love
Poems by Barbara Hamby
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
Hamby’s poems have been billed as “word drunk excursions into the American female consciousness,” and they certainly are; the titles of Hamby’s earlier collections Delirium, The Alphabet of Desire, Babel, and All-Night Lingo Tango make clear her obsession with language and the tensions it creates. But beyond their beautiful words, these poems are psychological expeditions, portals into complex layers of time and space—and not just the streets of Italy, Paris, and London where her speakers often find themselves. In Hamby’s writing, memory, both personal and collective, is a constant layer over the present. The collection’s title poem takes us down the Street of Divine Love, where the speaker is aware of much more than what’s just in front of her:
I’m walking down the Vincolo del Amore Divino in Rome
with a girl I hardly know, behind us the Spanish steps,
Keats’s words swimming inside me like thousands of fish
in a transparent tank of skin, and if his breath lingered,
it’s gone now, mixed with the sig heils of Mussolini,
the ecumenical denunciations of 15 popes, the pidgin
of the Japanese American soldiers from Hawaii
who liberated Rome but weren’t allowed to march into the city
during the day, the cries of the baffled Romans who saw them
and shouted Cinese, Cinese, and the millions of tourists
aiming cameras with lenses the size of a whale’s penis
saying to the mystified ticket sellers, Is this a museum?
This is a speaker who knows her history and literature, the same speaker who will, in other poems, describe the sky as “a glorious Leonardo blue” and make reference to a wealth of classic films: a speaker who has seen, or at least heard and read about, it all.
But Hamby’s speaker isn’t cataloguing her knowledge to brag. A clue to her motivation can be found in the Rimbaud quote Hamby chooses as an epigraph, which ends “Among the lost you choose me, but the others—are they not dear to me? Save them!” The lost souls and madmen, young women and ghosts that populate Hamby’s poems are all called forth in an attempt to gain them salvation. At one point, the speaker recalls the ancient Roman method of building roads based on birds’ migratory patterns, how they looked to “these last remnants of the dinosaurs/ to help them make their way in the world, so I believe in birds.” Again the past, Romans and dinosaurs, is layered on top of the present, birds and the speaker. And here the reader can see Hamby’s deeper meaning; this connection to the past is what leads to the speaker’s faith. All those who have gone before us, the least creatures, the most unexpected souls—in Hamby’s world, they all have an element of divinity.
Throughout the collection, Hamby strives to find the beauty in ugly things. Her “Ode to Skimpy Clothes…” illustrates this human desire in its mention of “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.” Rather than settle for mere desire, though, Hamby’s speakers take it one step further. They believe in the birds, and see divine beauty where others can’t. “Ode to the Messiah…” takes readers even further into the depths of darkness before turning toward its surprising ending:
…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…
…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.
This ode, like most of Hamby’s poems, takes us on a wild journey—in this case, to London, Thailand, Honolulu, and the imaginary pub—and flits quickly from peace to horror to awe and acceptance in a seemingly effortless way. Hamby accomplishes this through her style and structure, which evoke the workings of the human mind. As her poems undulate downward with their staggered lines, many of them more than a page long, readers are gradually hypnotized by the memories and leaps of logic these speakers engage. Add in Hamby’s penchant for finding precisely the right, and unexpected word (take chiffon, tesserae, or grifters, for instance), and these poems become dynamic vacuums which capture the reader.
It’s also Hamby’s tendency to celebrate the intangible alongside the tangible that allows her to bridge the chasms between her poem’s subjects. The long titles of her odes do a lot to clue readers in on the journeys that will follow. Two of my favorites are “Ode to Augurs, Ogres, Acorns, and Two or Three Things That Have Been Eating at My Heart Like a Wolverine in a Time of Famine” and “Ode to the Messiah, Thai Horror Movies, and Everything I Can’t Believe.” But perhaps the most effective of these is “Ode to Knots, Noise, Waking Up at Three, and Falling Asleep Reading to My Id.” The poem takes us from the languages of ancient Peru, China, Greece, and Rome to the bedroom of an insomniac to a quick catalog of memorized lines, a loud late-night Italian plaza, a mother’s potential stroke, a jury of cats, a tsunami, and a bus shooting before ending with a woman reading the newspaper. I had to check the poem twice to make sure I had those elements right and in the correct order, but in Hamby’s deft grasp I never once felt lost while reading of it.
At the risk of going on for far too long, let me take a final moment to analyze the book’s beautiful cover art, illustrated by Stuart Riordan. In this collection, Hamby’s poems are all the blue Toyota catapulting us up toward the night sky and new intellectual heights only to let us tumble down gently through beautifully dizzying atmospheres of images. It’s like she writes in “On the Street of Divine Love.” These poems, as a whole, are “a shop of gowns so frothy and pink that wearing them/ [will] transfer you to another plane of existence.”
BARBARA HAMBY is the author of four poetry collections, including All-Night Lingo Tango and Babel, winner of the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. Her book of linked stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, received the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award/John Simmons Award. She also coedited an anthology of poetry, Seriously Funny, with her husband David Kirby. Hamby is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Kate Tufts Award, and numerous other honors. Her poems have been widely anthologized, including The Best American Poetry 2000, 2009, and 2010. She is a Distinguished University Scholar at Florida State University, specializing in poetry and fiction.