Ode to Reading Proust in Memphis

Barbara Hamby

Splattered across the front pages of the Memphis paper       is the murder of a mother and her teenaged daughter
and the kidnapping of two younger daughters by a friend       of the family, a young man, who by the look of him
does not have a regular profession, which gives you       a lot of free time to plan mayhem,
though you could say the same about Marcel Proust,       and now that I’m at the end of Le Côté de Guermantes,
I’m beginning to think that all you need is a world       and a bee in your bonnet, and you could spend your life
in a cork-lined room trying to remember every party       you’ve ever been to, or you could open Stax Records
as did brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton in 1959       because they loved bluegrass so much,
but when the world of rhythm and blues presented itself,       they loved that, too, the music that was born
in four-square gospel tabernacles where preachers       called on their congregations to remember Moses
shouting to Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” but after the Civil War       so many people died of typhus and smallpox,
you had to wonder where that going took us, but as Proust       points out over and over—time only moves in one direction
no matter how much you try to row your boat the other way,       though that didn’t stop him trying to remember
every button and flounce on Albertine’s dress in The Captive,       and I find myself in Albertine’s camp after not too long,
though in real life Albertine was a man, though we’re not talking       about real life here, but the newspapers are,
and come to find out the feckless murderer in Memphis       thinks the young girls are his children,
two blondes rescued a few days later but a little blurry       around the edges in the photographs on the front page
of the newspaper, and the Duchesse de Guermantes is upset       about the color of her shoes while her great friend
Charles Swann tells her he is dying, so how will those two girls       remember the days after their mother and sister were killed
by a man who said he was their father, which is a blues song,       without much rhythm but a little typhus and a dose of civil war.

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Barbara  Hamby

Barbara Hamby is the author of six books of poems, including On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems, Babel, and All-Night Lingo Tango. She was a 2010 Guggenheim fellow in Poetry and her book of short stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, won the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her poems have appeared in many magazines, including the New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Yale Review. She teaches at Florida State University where she is Distinguished University Scholar. (Author photo by Catherine Taylor)

Travel has always been Barbara Hamby’s muse, and in Bird Odyssey she hits the road hard, riding a train across Siberia, taking a car trip from Memphis to New Orleans on Highway 61, and following The Odyssey from Troy to Ithaka. The concatenation of images released include Elvis and Tolstoy cruising through the sky in a pink Cadillac, Homer and Robert Johnson discussing their art in the Underworld, and the women in The Odyssey telling their side of the story, because what’s a woman to do in this world of men? She has to strike out on her own, ask the right questions, and tell her own story, translating the world into her own bright lie.

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