About this poet

Barbara Hamby is the author of On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).

Ode on Dictionaries

Barbara Hamby
A-bomb is how it begins with a big bang on page
one, a calculator of sorts whose centrifuge
begets bedouin, bamboozle, breakdance, and berserk,
one of my mother's favorite words, hard knock
clerk of clichés that she is, at the moment going ape
the current rave in the fundamentalist landscape
disguised as her brain, a rococo lexicon
of Deuteronomy, Job, gossip, spritz, and neocon
ephemera all wrapped up in a pop burrito
of movie star shenanigans, like a stray Cheeto
found in your pocket the day after you finish the bag,
tastier than any oyster and champagne fueled fugue
gastronomique you have been pursuing in France
for the past four months. This 82-year-old's rants
have taken their place with the dictionary I bought
in the fourth grade, with so many gorgeous words I thought
I'd never plumb its depths. Right the first time, little girl,
yet here I am still at it, trolling for pearls,
Japanese words vying with Bantu in a goulash
I eat daily, sometimes gagging, sometimes with relish,
kleptomaniac in the candy store of language,
slipping words in my pockets like a non-smudge
lipstick that smears with the first kiss. I'm the demented
lady with sixteen cats. Sure, the house stinks, but those damned
mice have skedaddled, though I kind of miss them, their cute
little faces, the whiskers, those adorable gray suits.
No, all beasts are welcome in my menagerie, ark
of inconsolable barks and meows, sharp-toothed shark,
OED of the deep ocean, sweet compendium
of candy bars—Butterfingers, Mounds, and M&Ms—
packed next to the tripe and gizzards, trim and tackle
of butchers and bakers, the painter's brush and spackle,
quarks and black holes of physicists' theory. I'm building
my own book as a mason makes a wall or a gelding
runs round the track—brick by brick, step by step, word by word,
jonquil by gerrymander, syllabub by greensward,
swordplay by snapdragon, a never-ending parade
with clowns and funambulists in my own mouth, homemade
treasure chest of tongue and teeth, the brain's roustabout, rough
unfurler of tents and trapezes, off-the-cuff
unruly troublemaker in the high church museum
of the world. O mouth—boondoggle, auditorium,
viper, gulag, gumbo pot on a steamy August
afternoon—what have you not given me? How I must
wear on you, my Samuel Johnson in a frock coat,
lexicographer of silly thoughts, billy goat,
X-rated pornographic smut factory, scarfer
of snacks, prissy smirker, late-night barfly,
you are the megaphone by which I bewitch the world
or don't as the case may be. O chittering squirrel,
ziplock sandwich bag, sound off, shut up, gather your words
into bouquets, folios, flocks of black and flaming birds.

From All-Night Lingo Tango by Barbara Hamby. Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Hamby. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press. All rights reserved.

From All-Night Lingo Tango by Barbara Hamby. Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Hamby. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press. All rights reserved.

Barbara Hamby

Barbara Hamby is the author of On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).

by this poet

poem

We’re in a taxi on the way to see Andrea del Sarto’s last supper,
          which was in the country when it was painted
but is now in the suburbs beyond the old city wall in an ex-convent,
          and our driver turns the radio to an English station
playing an American song, yes, Lil’ Kim’s “