Pick-a-Poem: Barbara Hamby


Welcome to another pick-a-poem post, readers! If you’re looking a poetic pick-me-up in your day, I hope we can provide that. This week’s selection, from the ever-helpful Poetry Daily, is entitled Reading Can Kill You and has been penned by Barbara Hamby. If you’re looking for a great place to get a daily poetry fix, check out Poetry Daily because they’re a great resource!

According to her page at Poetry Daily, Barbara Hamby “is the author of four books of poems, most recently Babel and All-Night Lingo Tango. She was a 2010 Guggenheim fellow in poetry and her book of stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, won the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award. She teaches at Florida State University and has new work in American Poetry Review, Poetry, and The Yale Review.”

Reading Can Kill You, by Barbara Hamby

My husband and I are at a restaurant with another couple,
and after a few drinks the other man and I are talking
about how much we love The Master and Margarita,
a novel we’ve both read many times in different translations,
but it soon becomes apparent his wife and my husband are stewing,
as if Bob and I had discovered we had a former lover
in common, let’s say a woman, and we were more passionate
about her than our spouses because she was Russian,
and instead of no, she said nyet, which sounds like a sexier yes,
and yes was da, which is so much more yes than yes
but with a twinge of nyet, and it was winter, a freezing Siberian
blizzard with days that began at ten and ended at two,
and we sat in the dark next to the blazing enamel stove
and for breakfast drank tea from the samovar sweetened
with jam and talked about Gogol’s sentences and Mandelstam’s
despair, and then at night it would be love and vodka,
so when Satan showed up with his entourage, we were borne along
on his cloud of smoke, joining his diabolical magic show,
flinging rubles into paradise, cuddling at night with his giant cat,
watching the dawn rise, reciting Pushkin and Akhmatova,
thrilling to Mayakovsky’s rants, and in the white nights of summer
we became poetry, every breath an iamb, our cries of ecstasy
the nyet that is da, and I can see why my husband is silent and sulky,
so I return to our table, sip my Sancerre, talk about Paris,
because all four can agree we’d rather be lost in that city
than be found in another, and the steppes recede,
but in the middle of my oysters I think of my great-grandfather,
who worked in the mines of Kentucky, and one night
was supposed to be watching the furnace, but he was reading,
and the furnace exploded, killing him, which led my mother
to threaten that all my reading would destroy me, too, and I pictured
my teenaged self in that dank little room, the fire roaring,
reading a newspaper, a union tract, “Kubla Khan,” or maybe
Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, whose heroine,
Bathsheba Everdene, was so rich and beautiful and stupid
I could hardly be blamed for not wanting to be anyone but her.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s featured poem! For more of these, check out our site’s archives.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan


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