Barbara Hamby has published seven books of poetry, most recently Bird Odyssey and On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems. She was a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, and her book of linked stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, won the 2010 University of Iowa John Simmons Award and was published by the University of Iowa Press. She and her husband David Kirby edited the poetry anthology Seriously Funny. She teaches at Florida State University where she is distinguished university scholar.
Travel has always been Barbara Hamby’s muse, and in Bird Odyssey she hits the road hard, riding a train across Siberia, taking a car trip from Memphis to New Orleans on Highway 61, and following The Odyssey from Troy to Ithaka. The concatenation of images released include Elvis and Tolstoy cruising through the sky in a pink Cadillac, Homer and Robert Johnson discussing their art in the Underworld, and the women in The Odyssey telling their side of the story, because what’s a woman to do in this world of men? She has to strike out on her own, ask the right questions, and tell her own story, translating the world into her own bright lie.
Perhaps Paul Kareem Taylor said it best in his piece called On the Road Again: Barbara Hamby’s American Odyssey: “Reading Barbara Hamby’s poetry is like going on a road trip, one where the woman behind the wheel lets you ride shotgun as she speeds across the open highways of an America where drive-in movie theaters still show Janet Leigh films on Friday nights, hardware stores have not been driven out of business by soulless corporate titans, and where long poetic lines first introduced by Walt Whitman and resurrected by Ginsberg are pregnant with a thousand reasons to marvel at the world we inhabit.”
This collection is a love letter to language with poems that are drunk and filled with references to the hyperkinetic world of the twenty-first century. Yet Zeus and Hera tangle with Leda on the interstate; Ava Gardner becomes a Hindu princess; and Shiva, the Destroyer, reigns over all. English is the primary god here, with its huge vocabulary and omnivorous gluttony for new words, yet the mystery of the alphabet is behind everything, a funky puppet master who can make a new world out of nothing.
Babel features more of the rhetorical acrobatics that fueled Barbara Hamby's earlier work. These whirlwinds of words and sounds form vistas, images, and scenes that are at once unique and immediately recognizable.
In poems such as “Six, Sex, Say,” she displays a linguistic bravado that moves effortlessly through translations, cognates, and homonyms. This love of words permeates the poems, from the husband wooing his future wife “with a barrage of words so cunningly fluent, / so linguistically adroit” in “Flesh, Bone, and Red,” to the alphabetic sampler woven from memory and love in “Ode on My Mother's Handwriting.”
Hamby's poems drift across histories and continents, from early writing and culture in Mesopotamia through the motion-picture heaven that seems so much like Paris, to odes on such thoroughly American subjects as hardware stores, bubblegum, barbecue, and sharp-tongued cocktail waitresses giving mandatory pre-date quizzes to lawyers and “orangutans in the guise of men.” As Booklist noted in reviewing her previous collection, Hamby's poems “are tsunamis carrying you far out to sea and then back to shore giddy and glad to be alive.”