Barbara Hamby, All-Night Lingo Tango

Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
2009, 80 pages, paperback, $14.95

barbara hamby’s all-night Lingo Tango is a collection that combines pop-culture and high-culture. It is a fusion of humor, irreverence, old Hollywood, and Shakespeare all hopped-up on uppers and grinding together at a rave. Each poem is all at once energetic, verbose, and gluttonous. Hamby says it best in, “Ode on Dictionaries,” describing herself in this way: “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.” Indeed, each poem is a pocket-full of knick-knack language, of word A.D.D. scattered liberally on the page, leading the reader through the tangled tango of the poet’s mind.

The collection begins with the long-winded title, “Ode to Anglo Saxon, Film Noir, and the Hundred Thousand Anxieties that Plague Me like Demons in a Medieval Christian Allegory,” which begins with, “Yo, Viking dudes,” and ends with, “Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s Moe, Larry, and Curly, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.” As can be inferred, the poem is all over the place and while the language can be rhythmic, the content is jarring. The poem rhymes throughout, sometimes with genius, sometimes with force, and serves as a dive-in-head-first-or-you’ll-never-get-your-head-wet method. And there is even more befuddling exuberance to follow.

Lingo Tango mostly consists of odes much like the first, as well as sonnets that may only loosely resemble Shakespearean form, yes, but so often include his ladies, gentlemen, and fools, all anachronistically smashed in with other literary works and pop-culture references. Sonnets such as, “Caliban Passes His Driving Test on the Ninth Try,” or “Jane Austen Rewrites Hamlet with Interruptions by Russian Poets,” are all delightful in their aim although they sometimes seem to rely on allusion too heavily. However, Hamby’s sonnet as the perfect setting for the dances of odd couplings is more than charming and, gleefully, not exclusive to the Bard. Everyone from Nietzsche to Lois Lane, from Olive Oyl to Betty Boop and Freud are out on the dance-floor doing the Hamby Tango. Even Cleopatra is included in, “So Says Cleopatra, Reincarnated as a Hippie Chick, circa 1967:”

Snakes, snakes, snakes, Ptolemy and Caesar — I ask you, what
ubiquitous black hole was I born under? On TV
Walter Cronkite drones on about the war, but I know it’s a tax
you have to pay for being alive. News is just buzz,
a boat of lies launched in a sea of misinformation, Horab
constructing his bridge over the whole fiery sea, and I’d
even bet that particular monster would turn into a wolf
given the right aspect of the moon. However, I’d stake my girlish
intuition that the world is changing. Have some baba ghanouj,
kale casserole, muesli. In fifty years, everyone will be eating a lentil
mess on brown rice, but no one will be hungry. Dream on,
O Flower Child, says Set, Bulldog of Death. Dream on, Lollipop,
Queen of the Nile. In war Set will ever out-seize her Caesar.

It is these image mash-ups, these “lingo tangos,” that the collection derives its force and energy. Although the poems are raw and seemingly unmanaged, it is the excitement of what or who will pop-up next that keeps the reader engaged and enchanted as Hamby employs them, like schizophrenic soldiers, to explore the depth and substance of a busy mind in a busy world.

-Jessica Binkley