Barbara Hamby’s On the Street of Divine Love is magnificent. Containing fifteen new poems and a distillation of her previous four collections, it should secure her place among the best American poets. Hamby is the master of the contemporary ode, many of which are included here, and the collection as a whole is an ode to words, not in a sterile, theoretical way, but in a way that is “giddy with being alive.” Just behind the poems is a “lexicographic longing” that leads us, both the poet and the reader, into the paradise of the present. Coupling high and low culture, the religious and the profane, and the metaphysical and the physical, these expansive, mostly ecstatic poems are as likely to talk about Lil’ Kim as Bartok. They “two-time Time.” They translate “the world into mockingbird, into blue jay, / into cat-bombing avian obbligato” because they want more “philharmonic mash notes to the gods.” They are a feast.
On the Street of Divine Love begins with an ode to forgetting, which ends with the stars singing “a song you heard on a street corner once, / so wild the pavement rippled , and it called you / like the night calls you with his monsters and his marble arms.” After remembering all of the things that she should forget, the speaker finds herself under the spell of the chorus of mystery, which is a kind of background music to all of the poems in the collection. “How to Pray,” which was meant to be a “scourge with a hair shirt and whips / and bowls of gruel” turns into “a prayer / of thanksgiving.” Hamby writes, “But is it blood the gods need, / or should your offering be all you have—words / and too many of them to count on the fingers pressed to your lips, / or maybe not enough and never the right ones.” Not only do words have the power to conceal and reveal, they are part of the mystery itself. In “Ode to Lil’ Kim in Florence,” the speaker and her husband are “in a taxi on the way to see Andrea Del Sarto’s Last Supper,” when Lil’ Kim’s “How Many Licks” comes on the radio. “The lyrics penetrate the armor of the city,” causing different times and places to course into each other, and the speaker imagines Lil’ Kim as Musetta. But she reminds Lil’ Kim that “we girls need some secrets while we fix / our lipstick … because we are riding the lonely streets … dying for the night to open up / dark and mysterious like a song only time can sing.” Maybe only time can sing that song, but it sings it through the poet, and Hamby is the perfect channel.
In “On the Street of Divine Love,” Hamby writes:
I’m walking down the Vincolo del Amore Divino in Rome
with a girl I hardly know, behind us the Spanish Steps,
Keats’s words swimming inside me like thousands of fish
in a transparent tank of skin, and if his breath lingered,
it’s gone now, mixed with the sieg heils of Mussolini,
the ecumenical denunciations of 15 popes, the pidgin
of the Japanese American soldiers from Hawaii
who liberated Rome but weren’t allowed to march into the city
during the day, the cries of the baffled Romans who saw them
and shouted, Cinese, Cinese, and the millions of tourists
aiming cameras with lenses the size of a whale’s penis
saying to the mystified ticket sellers, Is this a museum?
What isn’t a museum? My body being Exhibit A.
This passage provides a taste of the effortless range with which Hamby writes. The lines are so well crafted that they become almost completely transparent. Considering their lushness, this is an astonishing feat. The museum serves as a vivid image of being—we all stand in the present, housing the past. As the poem continues, the speaker sees “a shop of gowns so frothy and pink that wearing them / would transfer you to another plane of existence,” which she connects to “a tsunami (that) will rage through the Indian Ocean, and Katrina in the offing” and the jealousy of Jehovah and Shiva. She wants a God “big enough to love those who don’t believe in him, / because isn’t it enough just to walk this world / with its psychedelic wah wah, its lightning storms and squalor, / Paris and Calcutta.” After listening to Son House sing “John the Revelator” and answering his question, “Who’s that writing?” with “It’s Rimbaud / on his drunken boat, Noah railing on his ark, the Emperor Domitian / staging naval battles in the flooded Piazza Navona,” the speaker asks, “Where is my angel? For I’m on the street of divine love, / and if this pavement isn’t God / then I have nothing to pin my hopes on.” She rampages with the Visigoths through Rome, “Severn burying his friend out by the pyramid / beyond Rome’s walls, where some ragged bird is perched / on a palm tree, singing his heart out for everyone walking alone / through the alleys and fields of this broken night on Earth.” This ragged bird’s song resounds throughout the museums, “the transparent tank(s) of skin.”
The mockingbird is the most prevalent bird in the collection, and it seems to complement Keats’s nightingale. The selection from Babel, Hamby’s 2004 book, contains poems titled “The Mockingbird on the Buddha” and “Thus Spake the Mockingbird,” and the speaker of “My Translation” translates the world into “mockingbird.” In “The Mockingbird on the Buddha,” Hamby writes, “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 gray bird o’ mine.” The noisy bird says, “Eat up / while the night is young. Have some peach cobbler, girl … for the night is coming, and you need meat / on your bones to ride that wild horse.” The mockingbird “stays up late, knows what night can be / past twelve, past two, when trouble’s dark and beautiful.” It nests in the speaker’s brain and is her “enemy, (her) Einstein, (her) ever-loving monkey boy.” The poem ends, “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.”
While this mockingbird takes the blame for the destructive side of creation, the mockingbird of “Thus Spake the Mockingbird” “make(s) the day bright” and “wake(s) the night-blooming jasmine.” It says, “O the world / is a sad address, bitterness melting the tongues of babies, / breasts full of accidental milk, but I can teach flowers to grow, take their tight buds, unfurl them in the morning heat.” It is the “green god of pine trees” and “the heart of men, / the wild bird that drives their sex.” It is “the careless minx in the skirts of women” and “Lester Young’s sidewinding sax, sending that Pony Express, / message out in the Marconi tube hidden in every torso / tied tight in the corsets of do and don’t, high and low, yes and no.” Hamby writes, “I am the flamenco / in the heel of desire. I am the dancer. I am the choir. Hear my wild / throat crowd the exploding sky. O I can make a noise.” This noise animates the world, permeating everything in it. The “exploding sky” suggests the origins of the universe, and the mockingbird’s voice accompanies the explosion.
In “St. Clare’s Underwear,” Hamby writes, “I like to think of Kierkegaard’s idea of the natural home / of despair being in the ‘heart of happiness,’” and it seems that despair lies at the heart of the music in On the Street of Divine Love. Despair or “toska,” which Hamby explains in a poem by the same title: “In Russian // there is the word toska , which describes an undefined desire, / a sense that what you need and want most is elsewhere // or doesn’t exist at all.” English, the speaker tells us, “wouldn’t have a word / for such a feeling, for ours is a language of materialism first, // a language in which ideally everything you need is obtainable / because everything can be bought.” In “The Dream of the Red Drink,” the speaker has a “tête-à-tête with (her) most persistent epiphany, / that is, life is nothing” and “find(s) it comforting to know the world is transparent, insubstantial, without meaning.” In “Ode to the Lost Luggage Warehouse at the Rome Airport,” the speaker, who has lost her luggage, sees a screaming child on the way back to Florence and “think(s) of all (her) losses, // those past and the ones to come, (her) own death,” which leads her to think she’d “better get busy … enjoy life, be good to others, / drink more wine, fill a suitcase with arare, / dried squid.” We’re left with these pleasures and with the profound pleasures of the word, which as the speaker of “The Word” says, is all we had in the beginning: “In the beginning was the word, fanning out into syllables / like a deck of cards on a table in Vegas.” The speaker of “Ode on My Wasted Youth” says, “Oh, words, my very dear friends..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 flame.” Reading On the Street of Divine Love inspires a similar feeling of awe and gratitude. Songs “erupt from (Hamby’s) tongue, giv(ing) (us) a world (we) cannot give (ourselves),” and she teaches us to do the “all-night lingo tango.”
On the Street of Divine Love, by Barbara Hamby. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 144 pages. $16.95, paper.
Jordan Sanderson grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His work has appeared in several journals, including Better: A Journal of Culture and Lit, Gigantic Sequins, Red Earth Review, burntdistrict and Caketrain, and he is the author of two chapbooks, The Formulas (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Abattoir (forthcoming from Slash Pine Press). Jordan’s critical work has appeared in The Hollins Critic, Heavy Feather Review, and Alehouse, among other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.