Barbara Hamby

How to Pray
February 15, 2012 Hamby Barbara

How to Pray


Falling down on your knees is the easy part, like drinking

a glass of cold water on a hot day, the parched straw

of your throat flooded, your knees hitting the ground

like a prizefighter in the final rounds. You’re bloody,

your bones like iron ties, hands trembling in the dust. What

do you do with your hands? Clasp them together

as if you’re keeping your heart between your palms,

like their namesakes in the desert oasis,

because that’s what you’re looking for now, a place

where you can rest. It has been a dry ride for months,

sand filling your mouth, crusting your half-blind eyes,

and you need to speak to someone—though who

you don’t really know. Pardon is on your mind. Perhaps

you could talk to your mother. You are fifteen

and think her life is over. You don’t say it, but you think it,

and she’s ten years younger than you are now,

her hair still dark. How do you thank her for waking up

each morning and taking on a day that would kill you

and not just one but thousands? How do you thank her

for the way she tosses words around and makes

them spin and laugh and do cartwheels on the lawn?

And your father, he’s the one who loved poetry,

bought the book that opened your world to you

like someone cutting into a birthday cake the gods

have baked just for her. Do you talk to him about not caring

and teaching you that same cool touch?

And King James, how do you thank him for all the words

his scribes took from Wycliff and Tyndall, and Keats

for his odes, and Neruda for his. But this wasn’t meant to be a prayer

of thanksgiving but a scourge with a hairshirt and whips

and bowls of gruel. 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.

Barbara Hamby’s sixth book of poems is Bird Odyssey (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018). Poems in that book were first published in The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Plume.