Delirium (Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry) by Barbara Hamby

By Barbara Hamby

Winner of the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, 1994.

Barbara Hamby makes her poems out of jokes, Italian words, charges from saints and philosophers, references to nutrition eaten and wines under the influence of alcohol. In a fluid, compelling voice, she units a level, peoples it with actual and imagined characters, spins them into dizzying movement, after which makes every thing disappear as with a wave of a conjurer's wand, leaving the reader to ask yourself, “Did that ensue, or did I dream it?” One leaves her poetry the best way one leaves a gloomy theater on a July afternoon, confident that the normal passions relatively will not do—they have to be greater, as huge as they're in those poems.

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Example text

No insect is more secretive than the bee, for they have two thousand words describing the penetralia of the hive: octagonal golden chamber of unbearable moistness, Page 4 opaque tabernacle of nectar, sugarplum of polygonal waxy walls. The language of bees is a language of aeronautics, for they have wingstransparent, insubstantial, black-veined like the fall of an exotic iris. For they are tiny dirigibles, aviators of orchard and field. For they have ambition, cunning, and are able to take direct aim.

What does it mean?  of a hedgehog knows that though a rat's sneeze is fraught with significance for the rat, it is probably not all that relevant for godlike you and me, so when I am vacationing in the north of Italy with my beloved, staying in Alba with friends of friends, a lovely couple, cultivated and bookish who have a little dog, a dachshund to be precise, whose name is sZnoopy, or that's how the Italian "S's" come out, Page 38 and the four of us are lingering over our post-prandial grappa after feasting on truffles and lamb and cheese and Barolo, and I reach down to pet the seemingly benign sZnoopy, who until that moment has been groveling in the manner of dogs, and in a flash of pure evil, he snarls, draws back his malevolent lips, and fastens his teeth upon my left breast, what does it mean?

We'd still be eating grass and grubbing for worms.  That's easy. What could be more natural than sitting around a campfire telling stories and then rhyming to make them easier to remember or having two or three people take different parts?  I'm talking about bread. Who thought of grinding wheat and mixing it with mold?  Yuck, you might say, if they think we're creepy now, just imagine what our manners were like ten or twenty thousand years ago, though come to think of it, I doubt the alien haute bourgeoisie was patrolling the outer reaches of the universe.

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