On the Road Again: Barbara Hamby’s American Odyssey

Paul Kareem Tayyar

On the Road Again: Barbara Hamby’s American Odyssey

Garrison Keillor introduced us. Well, not in person (I’ve never actually met him), but it was in his anthology Good Poems for Hard Times, a magnificent collection of poetry featuring a who’s who of poetic all-timers (Bukowski, Rexroth, Sexton), where I first read Barbara Hamby—her voice rich, playful, and full of a knowledge of film, television, automobiles and slang so far beyond encyclopedic that her verses were like one-stop superstores of American Popular Culture. Though the word on the street is that the Beat Scene died forty years ago, somewhere around the time Jack Kerouac moved back in with his mother and Allen Ginsberg became Bob Dylan’s unofficial roadie, the truth is that Hamby has not only (along with the ageless wonder that is otherwise known as Lawrence Ferlinghetti) sustained the often-joyous linguistic enthusiasms of those San Francisco bards, but moved well past most of those more famous writers because her work is possessed of a warmth, a happiness, and a more down-to-earth spirituality than most of the Beats ever possessed. In short, reading Barbara Hamby’s poetry is like going on a road trip, one where the woman behind the wheel lets you ride shotgun as she speeds across the open highways of an America where drive-in movie theaters still show old Janet Leigh films on Friday nights, hardware stores have not been driven out of business by soulless corporate titans, and where the long poetic lines first introduced by Walt Whitman and resurrected by Ginsberg are pregnant with a thousand reasons to marvel at the world that we inhabit. If Joyce’s hope was that the city of Dublin, should it ever perish in a fire, could be rebuilt by the city planners closely reading the descriptive passages in his novel Ulysses, it is my belief that Hamby’s poems could do the same for the American Interstate Highway System.

Therefore, upon recently purchasing a copy of Keillor’s newest anthology, Good Poems: American Places (which is every bit as good as the previous two in the series), I was delighted to see that Keillor has included two more poems of Hamby’s, “Ode to American Hardware Stores” and “Mambo Cadillac.” Both of these poems display Hamby’s unparalleled ability to create a forward momentum in her verses, as well her peerless gift for turning the ode and the elegy into verse forms full of diesel-powered beauty. Reading “Mambo Cadillac,” for instance, is about as sexually playful an experience as listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s most risqué live performances, or watching Marilyn Monroe command a scene in herGentleman Prefer Blondes-era heyday:

    fill the tank 
    with high-octane rhythm and blues, sugar cane, and shark bait, too.
    We got some miles to cover me and you. (ll.25-27)

What is so fantastic about lines likes this are how much symbolic work they are doing, especially the fact that Hamby, in true grrrl power fashion, has co-opted the American road trip that has usually been the symbolic territory of men, and has staked her claim to an abiding nostalgia for car-culture that is being “driven” out of us as a result of environmental necessity.

In this context, “Mambo Cadillac” becomes, like the Cuban “Mambo music” to which the title alludes, a polyrhythmic narrative where the “center” is always shifting in such a way that no singular meaning can be pinned down. In this poem, as in so many of Hamby’s, motion is meaning, possibility is freedom, and the rich interior life of the writer becomes a kind of expressive jukebox to which the reader can always return for joy and vicarious escape.

When read in tandem with Hamby’s “Ode to My 1977 Toyota”, it becomes clear that her work comes the closest in verse to what Bruce Springsteen has raised to a level of high art in popular music, as she turns the act of driving solo into something out of epic myth:

        where have you
        not carried me—to dance class, grocery shopping,
        into the heart of darkness and back again? (ll.1-3)

Hamby beautifully articulates that the everyday sturm und drang of feminine activities—“grocery shopping” was hardly something that Homer would have considered worthy of an epic—is compatible with the larger mythic underpinnings of the quest narrative. And while Odysseus had Charon to ferry him back and forth across the River Styx, and Marlowe a boat courtesy of the British Imperials, Hamby has a stalwart sedan, legendary for its nearly-unparalleled endurance. No, the female speaker of these poems does not need a man to protect her, all she needs is a car with a working engine to carry her head-full of daydreams and memories into the beating heart of a vanishing America.

And it is this celebration of escape that makes Hamby an unofficial, latter-day Beat poet, albeit one with an intellectual and emotional maturity that was often in short supply with a writer like Kerouac. So, if you are a reader who likes a little enchantment and escape in your poetry, be sure to check out Hamby’s back catalogue—Delirium, The Alphabet of Desire,Babel, and All Night Lingo Tango—as all of these books are more entertaining and imaginative that just about any movie playing down at the local multiplex on a Saturday night.


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