Barbara Hamby

Ode to Roadside Shrines
January 28, 2016 Hamby Barbara

Ode to Roadside Shrines


I first see you in Crete, little boxes on four skinny legs,
nestled in an olive orchard on the dirt road,
with rain soaked and sun faded pictures of a saint
or Mary or even Jesus with his crown of thorns,
or his sacred heart right there on his chest for everyone
to see, and up in the mountains, where villages
are perched like awkward birds on the slopes,
are shrines to partisans who were murdered
by the Nazis. What do you mean, little iron boxes
in empty fields and beside parking lots,
some cluttered with trash, others overgrown with weeds
and vines? Are you a prayer or are you
like a thank you card to the universe? Sometimes
there is a photo of a young man,
so maybe you are like the crosses we see on tricky
curves in the South with the names
of boys who drank too much whiskey on Saturday
night and ended up in an early grave,
or the Sunday School teacher they hit and killed
along with her little girl and baby,
and some of you seem to be forgotten, as if the man
or woman who filled you with plastic flowers
and water bottles has died or moved to the next town,
and there you stand, a pale green metal cage
with broken glass and a bird nest or wasp nest,
but the flowers around your feet are real,
the wildest of wild flowers, tiny pinks or yellow
buttercups or daisies like butterflies
perched on stems akimbo in the morning sun,
so little boxes of the open road, bless me,
with your crooked legs and broken glass, show me
the way to look at the unfathomable sky
above the Gulf of Corinth, take your candles, rocks,
and rusted coffee cans and tell me a story,
and I will make my own boxes—one for my mother
in her fur stole as a young working woman
in Washington, before the Bible squeezed her brain,
and another for my father in his sailor’s suit,
just a boy going off to war and lucky to survive,
and another for Keats, who left his body
in Rome and Neruda who left his in Santiago,
and one day we will all abandon our shrines,
whether they be houses or gardens or antique
Mustang convertibles and drop our bodies
like we take off our clothes before bed, and what
are we without our wardrobe of flesh?
Who are we moving through this world of shrines
with our thoughtless jabs at the earth
and sky? Like a sailor washed up on a deserted
shore, will we forget everything,
and be forgotten? Still we will have lived to stop
and stare at an ant carrying a piece
of bread four times the size of his own body
from our table to his waiting queen.

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.