The Tawdry Masks of Women

By Barbara Hamby Barbara Hamby
Every bus ride is theater, giddy schoolgirls trying on
the tawdry masks of women, flirting with my nephew,
 
red and green lights, shop windows piled high, gold
glistered skeletal mannequins in slips of iridescent silk.
 
At night in the wind blowing over the Pont Marie I hear
Camille Claudel crying from the walls of her studio,
 
and two days before Christmas Elliot and I stand
miraculously alone before La Gioconde, follow her eyes,
 
cracked surface of her skin like softest sand before the deep
water of her mouth, and later standing in the cold
 
our Buddhist gardienne Nadine tells me in rapid-fire French
that in all things she tries to remain neutral, neutre, neutre,
 
neutre, the only word finally I understand in the barrage
tumbling out of her mouth like a waterfall, but I can’t be
 
neutral, passion welling up in my heart for the exhausted maids,
dapper men in berets, the madwoman on the PC bus,
 
screaming, Salope, salope, as she descends at the Pont d’Ivry
and everyone on the bus looking at each other, Whore?
 
Who’s the whore here? or the chic older woman, leather pants
baggy on her skinny shanks, reading a battered paperback
 
Rimbaud as we take the bus to see Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales,
the master himself as Chaucer, spinning his ribald stories
 
of human folly, each one a mirror, and when I see myself
in bus windows or store glass, the shock never wears off,
 
for I recognize myself and see a stranger at the same time,
because the minutes are racing by at the speed of light,
 
and I am saying goodbye to Paris, to everyone, myself
most of all, watching her disappear down the rue Jeanne d’Arc,
 
and what can she possibly be thinking as she walks
to the movies in the middle of this afternoon of her life?

Barbara Hamby, “The Tawdry Masks of Women” from Babel. Copyright © 2004 by Barbara Hamby. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

Source: Babel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

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Poet Barbara Hamby

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects Activities, Travels & Journeys, Arts & Sciences, Painting & Sculpture, Poetry & Poets, Reading & Books, Social Commentaries, Gender & Sexuality

Poetic Terms Couplet, Free Verse

 Barbara  Hamby

Biography

Born in New Orleans and raised in Hawaii, poet Barbara Hamby earned an MA at Florida State University. She is the author of several poetry collections, including All-Night Lingo Tango (2009); Babel (2004), which won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Donald Hall Prize; and Delirium (1995), which won the Vassar Miller Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book . . .

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SUBJECT Activities, Travels & Journeys, Arts & Sciences, Painting & Sculpture, Poetry & Poets, Reading & Books, Social Commentaries, Gender & Sexuality

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Poetic Terms Couplet, Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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