Barbara Hamby

April 8, 2014 Hamby Barbara



Marina is trying to describe Raskolnikov’s interior state

and uses the word toshno, which she says comes

from the same word as “to vomit,” which makes me think

of Sartre’s La Nausee and the German Weltschmertz,

but Marina says, it also has an element of nostalgia or longing,

thinking about how at one time you felt happy

but can no longer feel that way, though from my perch

it’s difficult not to see Raskolnikov’s malady

as a combination of poor nutrition and too much philosophy,

or at least that’s how I think of myself in my twenties,

thin from vegetarianism and grinding anxiety, maddened

by my parents’ fundamentalism, shucked off

but lurking in the corners of my brain, though in the ensuing days

I begin to think of other emotions that English has

no word to express: to take something bad, for example,

such as a firing, broken heart, insult, and turn it

into something so luminous that you are grateful

to the ex-wife, nasty co-worker, unfaithful lover

for the sneer, slag, the stab in the back. Or the feeling

of sadness after finishing a book you adore

because the thrill of first reading those glorious words

is gone forever. Or the feeling when you realize

someone hates you, so that a person, who was once nothing

to you, is now the focus of your attention. Walking

down the avenues of St. Petersburg or lying in an Italian bed,

you think about the river you have just seen

or the painting that until now has been a two-inch square in a book,

but that afternoon you saw the wall covered

with a luminous fresco, colors so vivid that the crazy

painter could walk in from the next room covered

with splatters of red and green and you wouldn’t be surprised,

but soon you will be sitting in your garden at home,

watching the wrens make a nest in a paint can hooked to a tree,

and then in thirty or so years, if you’re lucky,

you will be so old your body will be giving up, shoulders bent,

with no taste for food, and what is the word for that,

and will you know it when it’s whispered in your ear?

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.