Original poem reprinted online here: "Reading Can Kill You" by Barbara Hamby
Originally read: August 6, 2013
More information about the Poet: Barbara Hamby
This poem mixes allusions, references, inferences, relationships, and alignment all together to talk about -- well, what could have been and what's going on now. Why such complications? Even if the situation appears simple from a spectator view, to be actually in the moment what do a person goes back to? For the speaker, trying to understand goes back to literature.
The majority of the poem is a narrative between two couples talking over dinner. The first mention of literature is the third line, "The Master and Margarita" in which the speaker announces to have read, "in different translations." But with the focus on multiple translations, the speaker is still aware that, "his wife and my husband are stewing," there's a connection there which blows up to, "as if bob and I had discovered we had a former lover / in common."
Why? Why this connection?
And the connection spirals out of control, "she was Russian, / and instead of no, she said nyet, which sounds like a sexier yes." Now this may be humor going on, but I think the jump is too precise which makes me focus on the speaker's mindset.
But from here the speaker goes into the language of Russian, "Gogol's sentences and Madelstam's despair,". Note specifically here that the technique is well stated, but not how it's used in the work, rather I feel the surface overview of technique feels like a buffer from the current situation as though the speaker is further distancing from the distance being created.
And here and there are sprinkles of a relationship, "cuddling at night with his giant cat, / watching the dawn rise, reciting Pushkin and Akhamtova, / thrilling to Mayakovsky's rants, and in the white nights of summer." How dreamy these lines. These are imagined nights and mornings with actions referring back to an ideal day -- meanwhile, "I can see why husband is silent and sulky / so I return to our table, sip my Sancerre, talk about Paris, / because all four can agree we'd rather be list in that city."
Note how the speaker is always in control. Always knowing the situation, or knowing the Russian authors, or knowing when to come back, but especially understanding the scene. It's as if the speaker can be in two different worlds at once and save both with a simple whim? But does the speaker?
The speaker goes towards a tangent towards the speaker's great-grandfather. "who worked in the mines of Kentucky" and his love of reading which turns out dramatically deadly, "but he was reading / and the furnace exploded, killing him, which led my mother / to threaten that all my reading would destroy me, too," And here I wrote down, "parallel events" because the irony only works due to the speaker being a bit oblivious here.
Well not oblivious on the events, but more of the gravity of them. Yes, the grandfather died due to "reading" but the speaker is killing something because of the knowledge of "reading" -- the disassociation of reality. Yes, the husband sulks, but how bad is the sulking? His sulking is worth noting, but not as much to the speaker -- always back to the speaker.
"Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, whose heroine, / Bathsheba Everdene, was so rich and beautiful and stupid / I could hardly be blamed from not wanting to be anyone but her." These last lines are somewhat tragic in the sense of wanting to be a character more than a person. But, I feel, the turn isn't strong enough. I don't want something that changes the speaker's mind, but I think the strength of the end is the weak turn -- that there is an implication that things will continue to be the same. Knowledge is key, but doesn't save a relationship.