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.
Holoholo is the Hawaiian word for walking out with no destination in mind. In the three sections of this book, Barbara Hamby walks out into the current American chaos with its inferno of wars, street violence, apocalyptic fantasies, and racial tension. Fueled by an American lingo that embraces slang, Yiddish, street talk, and the yearning to be able to describe her moment in time, these poems encompass the complicated past, difficult present, and unknown future. Every foray offers a glimpse of the world constructed from one woman’s collage of consciousness.
Ode on My Nightingale
My nightingale is the conquistador of moonlight,
the engine of divine hullabaloo, the dance party
of shining headlights on a dark road past midnight,
the thrill of that first kiss in the battered Chevette,
the wrong turn that made me burn my map, clap twice,
summon my djinn. My nightingale is the stake
in my heart that can’t be dislodged, the hodge-podge
of my brain at two a.m. when the drunks
have gone home or passed out in the street. My nightingale
trills in the darkness, thinks of nothing
but his song, says forget me at your peril for I am
the tiara of rain that falls from the purple sky,
the lies you tell yourself to wake up from your dreams,
so listen, for my song will fade into nothing,
but nothing is made without me. I am the cosmologist
of the atomic, high priest of everything
you never wanted to be, all your highjacked dreams,
the screams in the muddle of night, the beam
of starlight on the river of sleep, for we are alone,
my darling, on this planet of night, and I am
your little god, your drinking water straight from the stream,
for my song is spooling into the night forever
and ever, amen. I am the derivative of sin. O let me in.
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.”