a poetry collection by Barbara Hamby, University of Pittsburgh Press,
Reviewed by Sandra Simonds
Barbara Hamby’s On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems is a collection full of poems that tell word-crazy, meandering and charming stories. In Hamby’s best poems, the reader begins one place and ends up in a totally unexpected place, through her remarkable control of the music of the line.
One of the aspects of Hamby’s work that I most enjoy is her ability to present speakers and characters who are flawed yet redeemable. The collection begins with the poem “Ode to Forgetting the Year” which speaks to the idea that, though people are flawed, we must accept them if we are to have relationships in our lives. “Forget the year,” she writes, “the parties where you drank too much, / said what you thought without thinking, danced so hard/ you dislocated your hip, fainted in the kitchen/ while Gumbo, your host’s Jack Russell terrier, looked you straight in the eye.”
Like that dog, Hamby’s poems look the reader straight in the eye. They don’t shy away from difficult or uncomfortable subjects, but they treat these subjects with finesse and humor. “Ode to Wasting Time and Drawing Donatello’s David” begins, “Of all the time I’ve wasted my favorite has to be the hours/ I’ve spent drawing Donatello’s David in the Bargello, / once the Medici prison in Florence.” In “Ode to My Wasted Youth,” she asks, “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?” There are quite a few instances of this kind of self-deprecating humor in the book. I think her ability not to take herself too seriously adds to the likeability and ultimately respect that the reader has for her as a narrator.
The collection is brimming with ordinary weirdos mixed with famous figures—a woman who color coordinates her outfits with her cars, new age pianists, a graduate student whose wife has left him so he is abandoning graduate school for the Navy, a head nurse at the Florida House of Representatives named Velma who gives the people working there (including the speaker) enough drugs to get through the work day, Roy Rogers, Lil Kim, Ronald Reagan, the list goes on and on.
What I most admire about these poems is the way Hamby weaves together tales from everyday existence with the literature that she has read to create such humorous and poignant narratives. Books are exceedingly important to her narrators, and when she is forced to sell them, in one poem for seventeen dollars, the effect on her narrator is devastating: In “17 Dollars” she writes:
I felt like the poor mother who has given her child,
to the rich couple because they can buy her
frilly dresses, give her piano lessons, send her to fancy schools.
I couldn’t take care of my Jane Eyre,
Molly Bloom, Anna Karenina, but maybe someone else could.
Even now I go to my shelves to look for The Trial
or The Day of the Locust or Thus Spoke Zarathustra,
and when I can’t find them, I know
they were in that box. What did we do after? Walk home,
eat dinner at the cheap Chinese place,
where you picked the shrimp out of eggrolls and asked,
“Is that pork? It taste like pork.”
Years later, the speaker of the poem meets the ex-boyfriend and when he apologizes for making her sell the books, she tells him that it was nothing, but she says, “she knew it was everything and it was” which shows the seriousness which Hamby takes her books, her language and her dazzling poems.
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. She teaches at Florida State University where she is Distinguished University Scholar.
Sandra Simonds grew up in Los Angeles, California and earned a BA in Psychology and Creative Writing at U.C.L.A and an MFA from the University of Montana, where she received a poetry fellowship. Simonds received a PhD in Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Florida State University in 2010. She is the author of four full-length collections of poetry: The Glass Box (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012) and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009) which was a finalist for numerous prizes including the National Poetry Series. She is also the author of several chapbooks including Used White Wife (Grey Book Press, 2009) and The Humble Travelogues of Mr. Ian Worthington, Written from Land & Sea (Cy Gist, 2006).
Simonds’ poems have been published in many journals such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, The Believer, the Colorado Review, Fence, the Columbia Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Volt, the New Orleans Review and Lana Turner.