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Barbara Hamby: Reading Can Kill You 

My husband and I are at a restaurant with another couple,
	and after a few drinks the other man and I are talking 
about how much we love The Master and Margarita, 
	a novel we’ve both read many times in different translations, 
but it soon becomes apparent his wife and my husband are stewing, 
	as if Bob and I had discovered we had a former lover 
in common, let’s say a woman, and we were more passionate 
	about her than our spouses because she was Russian, 
and instead of No, she said Nyet, which sounds like a sexier Yes, 
	and Yes was Da, which is so much more Yes than Yes 
but with a twinge of Nyet, and it was winter, a freezing Siberian 
	blizzard with days that began at ten and ended at two,
and we sat in the dark next to the blazing enamel stove 
	and for breakfast drank tea from the samovar sweetened 
with jam and talked about Gogol’s sentences and Mandelstam’s
	despair, and then at night it would be love and vodka, 
so when Satan showed up with his entourage, we were borne along 
	on his cloud of smoke, joining his diabolical magic show,
flinging rubles into paradise, cuddling at night with his giant cat, 
	watching the dawn rise, reciting Pushkin and Akhmatova, 
thrilling to Mayakovsky’s rants, and in the white nights of summer 
	we became poetry, every breath an iamb, our cries of ecstasy 
the Nyet that is Da, and I can see why my husband is silent and sulky, 
	so I return to our table, sip my Sancerre, talk about Paris, 
because all four can agree we’d rather be lost in that city
	than be found in another, and the steppes recede, 
but in the middle of my oysters, I think of my great grandfather,  
	who worked in the mines of Kentucky, and one night 
was supposed to be watching the furnace, but he was reading, 
	and the furnace exploded, killing him, which led my mother 
to threaten that all my reading would destroy me, too, and I pictured 
	my teenaged self in that dank little room, the fire roaring,
reading a newspaper, a union tract, “Kubla Khan,” or maybe 
	Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, whose heroine, 		
Bathsheba Everdene, was so rich and beautiful and stupid
	I could hardly be blamed for not wanting to be anyone but her.

From On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014)

Copyright 2014 Barbara Hamby

Barbara Hamby was born in New Orleans and raised in Honolulu. She is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Holoholo (Pitt, 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.

Barbara Hamby

10 comments on “Barbara Hamby: Reading Can Kill You 

  1. mollyfisk
    February 13, 2023

    Some people are just like really good at this. ❤


  2. Loranneke
    February 13, 2023

    I had to go back twice to be sure that this fabulous poem was actually a syntactical tour de force! It’s written in ONE sentence! I am a fan!


  3. John Balaban
    February 13, 2023

    Barbara Hamby! DA!


  4. Rose Mary Boehm
    February 13, 2023

    Wow! What a P O E M ! I have definitely to pull out THE MASTER AND MAGARITA again. Da.


  5. David Ades
    February 13, 2023



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