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There must be a Russian word to describe what has happened between us, like ostyt, which can be used for a cup of tea that is too hot, but after you walk to the next room, and return, it is too cool; or perekhotet, which is to want something so much over months and even years that when you get it, you have lost the desire. Pushkin said, when he saw his portrait by Kiprensky, “It is like looking into a mirror, but one that flatters me.” What is the word for someone who looks into her friend’s face and sees once smooth skin gone like a train that has left the station in Petersburg with its wide avenues and nights at the Stray Dog Cafe, sex with the wrong men, who looked so right by candlelight, when everyone was young and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, painted or wrote all night but nothing good, drank too much vodka, and woke in the painful daylight with skin like fresh cream, books everywhere, Lorca on Gogol, Tolstoy under Madame de Sévigné, so that now, on a train in the taiga of Siberia, I see what she sees — all my books alphabetized and on shelves, feet misshapen, hands ribbed with raised veins, neck crumpled like last week’s newspaper, while her friends are young, their skin pimply and eyes bright as puppies’, and who can blame her, for how lucky we are to be loved for even a moment, though I can’t help but feel like Pushkin, a rough ball of lead lodged in his gut, looking at his books and saying, “Goodbye, my dear friends,” as those volumes close and turn back into oblong blocks, dust clouding the gold leaf that once shimmered on their spines.
Copyright 2013 Barbara Hamby. First published in Poetry. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.
Barbara Hamby was born in New Orleans and raised in Honolulu. She is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Holoholo (2021). She has also edited an anthology of poems, Seriously Funny (Georgia, 2009), with her husband David Kirby. She teaches at Florida State University where she is Distinguished University Scholar.