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Barbara Hamby

Ode on My Waist

Negative numbers were a mystery till the summer

          I turned fifteen and acquired a waist,

one day a human hotdog the next Brigitte Bardot,

          well, not her but in the same category,

And God Created Woman, not from Adam’s rib

          but from a little girl, one day playing Barbies,

the next day initiated into the swirling world

          of algebraic reverses, rib cage on the hypotenuse

of the hip, gauge the indent, a new paragraph

          in the book of lust, boys sniffing like a pack

of hounds, the mathematics of breeding wrapped

          in the high-gloss patina of mini skirts and push-up

bras, magazines telling me how to walk, sit, smile,

          cross my legs, cross my heart, act stupid,

act smart, not knowing the dark chasm I was stepping

          into, the fissure of Scarlett’s 18 inches,

the history of waists, Peloponnesian isthmus—corseted

          Athenian bosom at war with girdled Spartan hips—

how to end up without a swollen waist, captive slave

          in the marketplace of K-12? O Solomon,

how could you forget the waist in your immortal song?

          Thy navel is like a round goblet, thy belly

like a heap of wheat set about with lilies, thy waist a bay

          on the body’s shore, the legs’ tropical blossom,

equator of a world so mysterious we could almost

          circumnavigate it with our hands, then—poof—it flies

away like a flock of blackbirds in the white curve of the sky.



Ode on My Terrariums


An enormous pickle jar is where they all began,

          and a large, rough pickle-loving family on hand

to yield an ever constant supply. Les tres riches heures

         de ma vie, wasting the minutes of my ninth summer

scouring the briny smell from the honeycomb of glass,

          using my mother’s wedding-silver knife to scrape moss

from the shadows of pines, laying it on three levels

          of progressively coarser soil. First the rough gravel

scooped from the driveway where our 1957

          green Rambler station wagon rested every night, one

of the worst mistakes my dad made in a long, surreal

          history of bad deals, dropped stitches, missed chances, all

my mom’s money down the oubliette of big and tall


swank men’s shops for the suits, topcoats, wingtips, crisp white shirts

          that would make him look like the million bucks he’d flirt

with all his days but never even get a first name,

          much less a telephone number. Level two, sand from

Buckroe Beach with the sad abandoned merry-go-rounds

          and ferris wheels of winter, the grains filtering down

into the gravel and on top rich loam from the pond

          by the road Mr. Benthall passed each day in his long

low Cadillac. Then the plants, a splash of water, screw

          on the lid and watch your little world respire, the dew

beading the dome of pickle heaven, to rain, then drain

          through soil and sand and gravel, to vaporize again

and again. My perfect world on Benthall Road, no Cain


to upset my Edens lined up on the window sill,

          a little god, creating her globes out of sheer will

for order, like Velasquez painting Las Meninas,

          the dwarves, ladies-in-waiting, a shimmering princess,

Philip IV, doting father, in the background, king

          but unable to pay his pastry chef, the painting

Velasquez’s bid for a minor nobility,

          but artist and king soon dead, the girl at twenty-three,

worn out by seven royal births. My terrariums

          rarely lasted more than a week or so—too much sun,

not enough. A nine-year-old god’s rattletrap world takes

          the pesky second law of thermodynamics

and runs with it into a quantum universe thick


with biospheres, communes, ashrams, and parallel worlds

          splitting off with each second, a universe unfurled

like the arms of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death

          or transformation, every moment a little death

or pirouette into another Balanchine dream

          or nightmare, depending on your point of view. It seems

a perfect world must hide in all this teeming being,

          that midsummer’s afternoon, phlox and jasmine blooming,

where fathers didn’t miss their chance looking for fool’s gold,

          or can it be this gaudy world with its missed trains, real

estate deals gone bad, children clamoring for more than

          one woman can give them, splintered by a glittering sun,

more glorious than any king and his starry crown.



Flesh, Bone, and Red


Looking at Rubens’s panels for Marie de Medicis

          in the Louvre with Stuart, whom my husband

calls Maria Stuarda for no other reason

          than the Italian rolls off his tongue

so sweetly and I think of how he wooed me

          with a barrage of words so cunningly fluent,

so linguistically adroit, I was caught like a dragonfly

          in a spider’s web, a delicious death,

but here we are older and not particularly wiser

          in Paris, and Stuart is walking with one boot off

because of arthritis in her foot, and my big toe

          aches intermittently from a dance injury,

and I carry the x-ray with me, if for nothing else

          to contemplate the beauty of my bones,

all twenty six, delicately rigged,

          somehow more elegant than the foot itself,

and Stuart is explaining Rubens’s genius,

          how his choice to separate the two cheeks

of a demi-goddess’s buttocks with brick red instead of black

          is glorious, and this room in the former palace

looks like nothing so much as an opera set,

          home of the Scottish princess, red-haired beauty

of Brodsky’s poems, but now ensconced in Verdi’s opera,

          beheaded by her rival for the English throne,

and sometimes my toe hurts so much I want to cut it off,

          the little I know about blood saving me,

and wine seems to dull the pain so we limp

          through the bitter night to a little restaurant

in the Marais, order a feast, and toast ourselves

          again and again with glasses of rough Corsican red,

though Stuart and I can’t stop talking about the flesh

          of Rubens’s women, its rosiness, its amplitude,

our own bodies growing thicker, more regal with age,

          the glory of youth passing like a runaway train

as we sit in a field of poppies, meal spread

          on blankets, bottles of champagne, paté,

long bayonets of bread, grapes like mermaids tears,

          with each morsel making our bodies as Rubens

painted his queens, blue by flesh by stroke by red.


Barbara Hamby has two books of poetry: Delirium (University of North Texas, 1995) and The Alphabet of Desire (New York University Press). Her third book, Babel, won the 2003 AWP/Donald Hall Prize and will be published next year by the University of Pittsburgh Press. She has work forthcoming in the Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Boulevard, Indiana Review, and the Yale Review.

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