Barbara Hamby

Three Poems

Ode to Lenin’s Overcoat

In every Russian city or town a stat­ue of Lenin stands
on a cen­tral square with his over­coat blown back
as if by a cold wind from Siberia as he strides into the Future
with a cap­i­tal “F.” And then there’s the body on display
in the Kremlin, look­ing like noth­ing so much as a diplomat
or a pros­per­ous busi­ness­man in a dark suit,
though he plant­ed the bomb that would blow a hole
the size of Asia in the twen­ti­eth century,
and it was said that all he cared about besides the revolution
was Beethoven and chess, the Appassionata
wring­ing his heart as the four beau­ti­ful grand duchesses
could not. We’ve all met those true believers
who make you glad you’re not the smartest per­son in the room
because you wouldn’t want to live with their hearts
thump­ing in your chest, espe­cial­ly after the mass executions,
and let’s face it, you’d be in the gulag at best
or shot against a base­ment wall for all your sins,
which are words all emer­ald and scarlet,
shim­mer­ing like cheap Christmas trash in drug­store aisles,
though they might as well be sewn into the seams
of your corset if you wore one, and maybe the czar
was out of touch, but the Bolsheviks,
Mein Gott in Himmel, or what­ev­er it is the Russians say.
Then there was Stalin, but I’m get­ting ahead
of myself, as was Gogol when he wrote the end­ing of his story,
in which the dead clerk, who’d had his new over­coat stolen,
comes back as a spec­tre on a freez­ing night and grabs the judge
who wouldn’t help him in life, demands his fur coat,
which the judge, turn­ing white, gives up with a scream,
jumps in his coach, and speeds away, trembling
like a toy poo­dle, while the dead clerk pulls the collar
around his neck, warm at last in the Arctic night.
In Gogol’s sto­ry he still haunts St. Petersberg, but it can’t be
the timid clerk, for this phan­tom is tall, has moustaches
and giant hands that look as if they could stran­gle the czar
and all his guards, send Mandelstam to his gulag
and sen­tence a man to death for a crime that in his dreams
he would wake from scream­ing like the conscript
as a bul­let pierces his chest, know­ing he will nev­er hear
his mother’s voice again or have sex with his Sonya
or even eat a hot meal, the but­ter on a piece of black bread
dipped in soup swim­ming with meat and potatoes,
because he’s lying in the dirty snow cry­ing as he had
when his father beat him until he whimpered
like a dog on the kitchen floor, his moth­er already there.


Over-the-Hill Tenors after the Opera

Being a tenor is a young man’s game, their light voices
hit­ting the high notes, flat bel­lies like shields,
because they have to slay the drag­on, drink the poi­son, kiss
the beau­ti­ful sopra­no but not in St. Petersburg tonight
in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, for the tsar’s officers
are stuffed into white span­dex pants, their penises
like mum­mi­fied fish under the expanse of their jerkins,
and the hero Herman, who at least is in black spandex,
but when he takes off his pow­dered wig, his greasy hair
can­not dis­guise his bald pâté and his jowls,
and though he puts his all into it, there is no disguising
he is twen­ty years too old and forty pounds too heavy
for the role, and I think of these tenors after the opera
in an opu­lent bar all mar­ble and chandeliers,
knock­ing back vod­kas and eat­ing sil­ver fish swim­ming in oil,
because snacks become so much more important
as the years progress not to men­tion drinks, or what else
was Hamlet talk­ing about in his famous soliloquy
but fig­ur­ing out how to make do, slog­ging along on our paths,
and most of us would rather have a stiff drink
than a bare bod­kin and bear our fardels, because what else
is there to do, though some go to God, bless their hearts,
as we say in the South, because the world can be a hor­ror show
with knife-wield­ing lunatics behind every door,
and most of the time they seem to be peo­ple in our own families,
or why would the police look at the hus­band first
when a wife is stran­gled or a father when a child disappears?
Every day the news­pa­per head­lines shout at us:
human beings stran­gle, pis­tol whip, run over others
in a drunk­en rage, and then there are the wedding
announce­ments, the bright shin­ing smiles, no slammed doors
or drinks in faces yet, or maybe the tenors go home
after the opera and drink alone, gaz­ing at framed photos
of them­selves twen­ty years before, their jaws like granite
and eyes shin­ing, look­ing beyond the cam­era to a future
just beyond the next room and down the street
where it’s rain­ing now, but the sky will clear, and who’s to say
what will hap­pen tomor­row or the day after
or when Spring comes or next year or the year after year after year.


The Dream of the Dacha

You are walk­ing in a deep for­est of ever­greens and oaks,
leaves muf­fling your steps, mud soaking
your pink satin shoes. Who wears silk shoes to walk
in the woods? You do. You were at a par­ty, drank
cham­pagne and danced to vio­lins, the notes soaring
like birds out of the open win­dows and into the summer
night, but that was hours ago, and now you are on a path,

or you think there might be a path. You see it and then you don’t,
but the moon­light comes from behind the clouds,
and its trail shim­mers in the woods, and you think of mangata,
the Swedish word for the path moonlight
makes on water. Where are you? Sweden? No, Russia,
you are deep in a for­est, and there are branches
you must push away, but they still tear at your dress,

almost like moon­light itself, and you hear small animals
scrab­bling through the bram­bles on either side
of the path. In a fairy tale they would be escorts from their queen
who is wait­ing for you, has been wait­ing all your life
to show you how to crack the mir­ror of the present moment,
grow wings and fly into anoth­er world, a planet
where there are no doors or win­dows or walls,

but this is no fairy tale, and the ani­mals have sharp teeth
that glim­mer in the moon’s reflec­tion, and there are bears,
fero­cious in their brown pelts teem­ing with shit and gnats and flies.
Do you know what flow­ers are at your feet? You can’t see
the tiny white cups or yel­low stars like scat­tered light. You
remem­ber a poem, and you sing it as you walk,
gos­sip­ing with the stoat who is run­ning along side you,

and when you are most lost you see a light in the distance,
or maybe not. Perhaps it’s a trick of moonlight
on the leaves or a hal­lu­ci­na­tion from poi­soned wine,
but your arms and legs are weight­less, and you
are run­ning now as if some­one were call­ing to you
from the dark­est part of the night. Is there a clearing
where the trees thin? Is that a cot­tage? Yes, oh, yes, it is,

and you knock at the door, and who answers? Your mother,
but her hair is dark, and she hasn’t for­got­ten how to laugh.
She heats the samovar and cuts a slice of cake
or maybe makes a sand­wich of black bread and butter,
and you sweet­en your tea with varenye, a soupy jam
with whole apri­cots swim­ming at the bot­tom of your cup,
just as you have read of in nov­els. Your moth­er shows you her garden

with its nine bean rows and toma­toes like rubies in the sun,
because it is day now, and your broth­er is there,
but he loves you again, and your sis­ter is mak­ing mud pies
as she did as a girl, though she is older
and her hair is gold­en, and there is noth­ing to do all day but hunt
for black­ber­ries and make jam or bake bread
or hike to the pool, swim, and dry off on the grass in the sun,

which is some­times lost behind dark clouds that rumble
in the dis­tance, and you smell the rain min­utes before
it begins to fall and run back to the cot­tage, sit in a chair,
open a book, turn to the sto­ry of a grand estate,
a comet, a prince, and a woman who thinks
she knows her own heart but is only looking
through a win­dow at a sum­mer storm that might nev­er end.


Barbara Hamby is the author of five books of poems, most recent­ly On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (2014)  pub­lished by the University of Pittsburgh Press, which also pub­lished Babel (2004) and All-Night Lingo Tango (2009). She was a 2010 Guggenheim fel­low in Poetry and her book of short sto­ries, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, won the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award. She teach­es at Florida State University where she is Distinguished University Scholar.