Seven Poems

by Barbara Hamby

storySouth is pleased to present two new poems by Barbara Hamby, “Venus and Dogberry, A Match Made in New Jersey” and “Waltz, Swing, Cha-cha-cha,” as well as five poems reprinted from her two most recent books. There is also An Interview with Barbara Hamby by Dan Albergotti.

Barbara Hamby is the author of Delirium (University of North Texas Press, 1995), The Alphabet of Desire (New York University Press, 1999), and Babel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). She won the Kate Tufts Award for Delirium, and the New York Public Library named The Alphabet of Desire one of the twenty-five best books of 1999. Babel was the winner of the 2003 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Hamby teaches creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she lives with her husband, poet David Kirby.

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.

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
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.

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.

Ode on Satan’s Power

At a local bistro’s Christmas sing-along, the new
       age pianist leads us in a pan-cultural brew
of seasonal songs, the Ramadan chant being my
       personal favorite, though the Kwanza lullaby
and Hanukkah round are very interesting. Let’s
       face it, most of us are there for the carols we set
to memory in childhood though some lyrics have been
       changed, so when we sing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,”
we’re transformed into a roomful of slightly tipsy
       middle-class gentlepeople who are longing to be
saved from hopelessness instead of Satan’s power when
       we were gone astray,
but I, for one, sing out Satan’s
as do most of the gentlepeople, women

and men, something I find myself pondering a few
       days later, while my profoundly worried nephew,
Henry, and I embark on our annual blitzkrieg
       of baking, punctuated by Henry’s high speed
philosophical questioning, such as, Where do we
       go when we die? Pressing my collection of cookie
cutters—trees, snowflakes, Santas—into fragrant ginger
       dough, I want to say, Who cares? Carpe diem, buster,
though, of course, I’m way too scarred by pop psychology
       to utter half the nutty things that pop up like weeds
in the 18th-century garden of my brain. Eight-
       year-olds need their questions answered, I suppose, but not
by me. “Let’s watch some TV,” I say, an instrument

of Satan if ever there was one. Bullitt’s on—Steve
       McQueen in his prime. I love this movie—equal waves
of sorrow and carnage washed up on a hokey late-
       sixties beach of masculine cool. McQueen is Bullitt,
and Jacqueline Bisset’s his girl. Henry and I start
       watching during the scene where she is driving Bullitt
around because, if I remember correctly, he’s
       totaled not just one but several cars, in at least
as many now-famous chases. Jackie drops Bullitt
       at a hotel, where he finds a girl, newly dead, throat
circled with purple fingerprints like grape jam stains. “What
       happened to her?” Henry asks, frowning. I think, Oh, shit,
this is not an officially approved nephew-aunt

Christmas activity. If I don’t make a big deal
       of it, maybe he won’t tell his mother. “Someone strangled
her,” I say. “What’s strangled?” he asks, and I see my sister
       has chosen not to threaten her child as our own dear
mother routinely threatened us. Driven crazy, she
       browbeat us with strangulation, being slapped silly,
public humiliation, murder, and eternal
       damnation. Perhaps because Henry’s her only child,
my sister can afford to be gentler with her son,
       or maybe it’s because two months before he was born
she almost lost him, ending up in the hospital,
       hooked to machines, ordered to bed for the final
wrenching weeks. Maybe that’s why the story of the Christ child

speaks to us. All parents wonder how the world will treat
       their tender babes. Like Lorca, will he become a great
poet, then end up in a mass grave? Only German
       philosophers think more about death than Henry Gwynn.
“Why did he strangle her?” he asks, face formidable
       as Hegel’s. Satan’s power, I want to scream, but mumble
“It’s just a movie; it’s not real.” Steve McQueen’s dodging
       a plane, and I remember reading he did his own
stunts, which I tell Henry, but he’s still in that hotel
       room. “If she was alive, how’d she get her eyes to roll
back into her head?” I’m thinking of pornography,
       snuff movies, all the things I never want him to see
or even know about in this tawdry world. “Honey,

it’s a major motion picture. Even in a small part
       an actress has to be great.” He nods and takes a bite
off Santa’s head. “She was a pretty good actress.” You
       bet your booty, and I realize out of the blue
Santa is an anagram for Satan. No way am
       I going to explain anagrams or Herr Satan,
though how wonderful to have such a nemesis —
       a fallen archangel, one of high heaven’s brightest stars—
in a battle with Jehovah for our souls, rather
       than the calendar’s increasing speed like a roller
coaster run amok through a fun park of lost dreams, lost
       landscapes, and children, growing up faster than we thought
possible in the last terrible days before their birth.

“Mr. Pillow” and “Ode on My Wasted Youth” originally appeared in The Alphabet of Desire (New York UP, 1999). “The Mockingbird on the Buddha,” “Six, Sex, Say,” and “Ode on Satan’s Power” originally appeared in Babel (Pittsburgh, 2004). These poems are reprinted here by permission from the author.