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Barbara Hamby: The Tawdry Masks of Women

Every bus ride is theater, giddy schoolgirls trying on
the tawdry masks of women, flirting with my nephew,
red and green lights, shop windows piled high, gold
glistered skeletal mannequins in slips of iridescent silk.
At night in the wind blowing over the Pont Marie I hear
Camille Claudel crying from the walls of her studio,
and two days before Christmas Elliot and I stand
miraculously alone before La Gioconde, follow her eyes,
cracked surface of her skin like softest sand before the deep
water of her mouth, and later standing in the cold
our Buddhist gardienne Nadine tells me in rapid-fire French
that in all things she tries to remain neutral, neutre, neutre,
neutre, the only word finally I understand in the barrage
tumbling out of her mouth like a waterfall, but I can’t be
neutral, passion welling up in my heart for the exhausted maids,
dapper men in berets, the madwoman on the PC bus,
screaming, Salope, salope, as she descends at the Pont d’Ivry
and everyone on the bus looking at each other, Whore?
Who’s the whore here? or the chic older woman, leather pants
baggy on her skinny shanks, reading a battered paperback
Rimbaud as we take the bus to see Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales,
the master himself as Chaucer, spinning his ribald stories
of human folly, each one a mirror, and when I see myself
in bus windows or store glass, the shock never wears off,
for I recognize myself and see a stranger at the same time,
because the minutes are racing by at the speed of light,
and I am saying goodbye to Paris, to everyone, myself
most of all, watching her disappear down the rue Jeanne d’Arc,
and what can she possibly be thinking as she walks
to the movies in the middle of this afternoon of her life?

“The Tawdry Masks of Women” from Babel. Copyright © 2004 by Barbara Hamby
Pitt, 2004). Used by permission of the author and the University 
of Pittsburgh Press.

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.

6 comments on “Barbara Hamby: The Tawdry Masks of Women

  1. matthewjayparker
    October 11, 2022

    Incredibly moving. Reminds me of Sara Maclay’s book “Whore.”


  2. rickcam21
    October 10, 2022

    Barbara is one of the best around



  3. Sean Sexton
    October 10, 2022

    What finery of words, mastery of metaphor!
    Barbara—you are something!


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