NPM Curated Poem 6: Barbara Hamby’s “Ode on Dictionaries”

A vastly underrated poet, in my mind, Barbara Hamby has been writing and publishing linguistically and intellectually dexterous poetry since her 1995 debut, Delirium.  That book won the Vassar Miller prize, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Norma Farber First Book Award, and yes, I’m still telling you she’s underrated.  To me, that’s how good she is, and that’s how influential she’s been on my work–she’s one of my idols.  Here’s a poem that showcases her thinking and her voice (I once again took the text from


Ode on Dictionaries

By Barbara Hamby

A-bomb is how it begins with a big bang on page
        one, a calculator of sorts whose centrifuge
begets bedouin, bamboozle, breakdance, and berserk,
        one of my mother’s favorite words, hard knock
clerk of clichés that she is, at the moment going ape
        the current rave in the fundamentalist landscape
disguised as her brain, a rococo lexicon
        of Deuteronomy, Job, gossip, spritz, and neocon
ephemera all wrapped up in a pop burrito
        of movie star shenanigans, like a stray Cheeto
found in your pocket the day after you finish the bag,
        tastier than any oyster and champagne fueled fugue
gastronomique you have been pursuing in France
        for the past four months. This 82-year-old’s rants
have taken their place with the dictionary I bought
        in the fourth grade, with so many gorgeous words I thought
I’d never plumb its depths. Right the first time, little girl,
        yet here I am still at it, trolling for pearls,
Japanese words vying with Bantu in a goulash
        I eat daily, sometimes gagging, sometimes with relish,
kleptomaniac in the candy store of language,
        slipping words in my pockets like a non-smudge
lipstick that smears with the first kiss. I’m the demented
        lady with sixteen cats. Sure, the house stinks, but those damned
mice have skedaddled, though I kind of miss them, their cute
        little faces, the whiskers, those adorable gray suits.
No, all beasts are welcome in my menagerie, ark
        of inconsolable barks and meows, sharp-toothed shark,
OED of the deep ocean, sweet compendium
        of candy bars—Butterfingers, Mounds, and M&Ms—
packed next to the tripe and gizzards, trim and tackle
        of butchers and bakers, the painter’s brush and spackle,
quarks and black holes of physicists’ theory. I’m building
        my own book as a mason makes a wall or a gelding
runs round the track—brick by brick, step by step, word by word,
        jonquil by gerrymander, syllabub by greensward,
swordplay by snapdragon, a never-ending parade
       with clowns and funambulists in my own mouth, homemade
treasure chest of tongue and teeth, the brain’s roustabout, rough
        unfurler of tents and trapezes, off-the-cuff
unruly troublemaker in the high church museum
        of the world. O mouth—boondoggle, auditorium,
viper, gulag, gumbo pot on a steamy August
        afternoon—what have you not given me? How I must
wear on you, my Samuel Johnson in a frock coat,
        lexicographer of silly thoughts, billy goat,
X-rated pornographic smut factory, scarfer
        of snacks, prissy smirker, late-night barfly,
you are the megaphone by which I bewitch the world
        or don’t as the case may be. O chittering squirrel,
ziplock sandwich bag, sound off, shut up, gather your words
        into bouquets, folios, flocks of black and flaming birds.


I first encountered this poem in Hamby’s great selected poems, On the Street of Divine Love (Pittsburgh, 2014), though it’s in her earlier All-Night Lingo Tango (2009), which I hadn’t gotten around to reading (I’m blaming grad school, my second round).  Hamby uses two established poetic forms here, the ode and the abecedarian.  An ode is “a formal address to an event, a person, or a thing not present,” to quote the Academy of American Poets website, and it’s often associated with praise of that event, person, or thing.  An abecedarian is a poem whose parts (lines or stanzas) are in alphabetical order.  In this case, it’s a clever choice, because that’s how the dictionary is ordered, too, and the beginning of this poem explicitly calls up the beginning of the dictionary.  I’m also in love with phrases like “rococo lexicon,” which both explains the diversity of her mother’s vocabulary and continues the great prosody here with the consonance of the repeated “co” sound.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write an abecedarian.  Start your first line with A, the next with b, and so on.  I take Hamby’s lines to be so long that they spilled over to the next one, but these could also be separate lines, every other line indented, so that just the left-justified lines are in alphabetical order.  This poem isn’t Hamby’s first experiment in the abecedarian form, either; if you enjoy this poem and exercise, check out her 1999 book The Alphabet of Desire.

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