A Review of Barbara Hamby’s Holoholo

Some poems generate physical sensations in my body. When I read Ferlinghetti, for example, I see myself playing hopscotch. With Walt Whitman I sense the cadence of boots strolling through Brooklyn Heights. While reading Holoholo by Barbara Hamby (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021), I felt the rhythmic to-and-fro movement of a swing combined with the up-and-down movement of a see-saw. I also found that, once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. Instead, I carried it with me throughout the house, from kitchen to bathroom to bed, and read its entirety in one long, breathless excursion. 

At first, I wondered if I was sufficiently spry to follow the trail of these sprinting odes. How to taste and savor them? I eventually decided to simply enjoy the words—fast and furious—for the sensual joy of their running-brook sounds, their sweet and sour tastes, their reach backwards into the past and leap forward into the future, and their syntactic mastery of the run-on sentence. And once I plunged in, I had no great difficulty running up and down these lines with their titillating language. 

The book has three sets of odes: “Americanski Odes,” “Ontological Odes,” and “My Holoholo Odes.” Every poem centers on someone, some place, some moment, some exigency. At times celebratory, these odes are not laudatory, indeed there is much critical thought running through them. Each holds onto a thread of narrative; each poem is a story unto itself, and many stories are picked up, like so many stitches, later in other poems. The treatment of their subject matter is a romp of meanderings that jump from “My Mother’s Lingo,” to a drive “on Venice Boulevard with Emily Dickinson,” to “The Brides of India,” to the “Last Peach of Summer,” and “Those Little Cookies You Dip in Wine.”

The delightful word “holoholo” is an Hawaiian term with an imagistic meaning that sums up the act of wandering about with no intent or purpose. It offers the gamble of leaving the house without keys or wallet and simply letting fate have her way. It’s the sort of word found in many languages that describes a complex mood or tells an entire story; such words are sadly lacking in English. It’s an apt metaphor for Hamby’s writing. In her hands, holoholo seems to mean wandering from thought to thought, idea to idea, image to image.  

In endnotes, Hamby tells the reader that she grew up in Hawaii, and “the landscape of the islands and its beautiful lingo are a paradise I keep inside me always.” Regarding odes, she says, “Unlike the elegy … the ode celebrates and contemplates living …” And regarding the enormous reach and landscape of these poems, she says: “I find it thrilling to be part of that 4,000-year conversation between my deepest self and that of human beings who have come before and those who will follow.” An admirable undertaking indeed. 

In “Americanski Odes,” we find news, kitsch, musings on parental one-liners (e.g., “See you in the funny papers,” or “I have a bone to pick with you”), surfer slang, the American Diner, laundromats, and “Words for Parties,” including “shindig, bash, / meet-and-greets, raves, blowouts, and barbeques.” 

In “Ode On My Prison” we learn about:

                                         a couple arrested
    for selling hundreds of tickets to heaven
which they said were made from pure gold
    and all you have to do is hand yours over
to St. Peter and you are ushered into paradise. Tito Watts,
    the mastermind of this scheme, told the police
Jesus gave him the tickets in the parking lot
    behind the KFC and told him to sell them
so he could pay Steve, an alien Tito met at a bar,
    to take him to a planet made of drugs. 

Meanwhile, the narrator waits,

for something supernatural to appear, not Jesus,
    but maybe Walt Whitman walking to New Orleans
with his brother, a cloud of words crowding out Stevie
    and the other aliens as Walt fuels his own dream
of America where we’re looking after each other

Two somewhat dissimilar definitions of ontological are “the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being,” and “showing relationships between concepts and categories.” In Hamby’s “Ontological Odes,” there are some of each. She tells us in “Ode to Marivaudage, Ratiocination, and BlahBlahBlah,”—fabulous words, those first two, but I’ll let you look up their definitions—about her love of language, a love that is evident in every poem in Holoholo. There is a delightful combination of high and low diction here, and a reminder of North Florida—where I once lived—in citing the town, “Two Egg.” I imagine anyone reading this book will stumble upon their own nostalgic references—its reach is that wide. 

An ontological reference to the nature of being is found in the poem “Ode to My Younger Self,” which is a long tribute to youth—Hamby’s and others’—which starts with the lines I think many readers would nod to,

You were beautiful and stupid though you thought
      you were so smart, and in a way you were.
Because you loved poetry and Beethoven and apples

And closes with this venerable self-appraisal,  

     and The Song of Solomon told you that love could be poetry
so thank you for staying up all night reading and not going
    out to bars, and I really appreciate that dance class
you took three days a week all through your thirties,
    and after that the yoga. I’m feeling fit right now,

and I know I have you to thank, and those eleven years
    as a vegetarian. You really took care of my heart.

In “Ode to the DNA Cocktail (Shake that Baby. Oh Yeah)” is an ontological list of concept and categories, where various alcoholic drinks— “martini,” “Old Fashioned,” “Bud Light,” and “White Russian”—are matched with “your mother’s rage,” “your grandmother’s nose,” “tailgate parties,” or “the novels that shone a light / into the crevices of your mind’s gulag.”

“My Holoholo Odes” travel the globe through time, gazing at “a room of Gauguins / from his second trip to Tahiti”; noting how, at a Hindu wedding, “the bride’s mother gives the groom a coconut”; and celebrating odor in “Ode to Words for Smells,” and noise in “Ode to Words for Sound.”

This section of odes also contains “Ode on Killing Sadness,” which I found deeply moving in its description of the narrator visiting women in a nursing home in Havana, while missing her own mother and feeling some regret as a daughter:

    because I still miss her so much
after five years, and I kiss the Cuban woman’s cheek
    and I want to take her home with me
but we don’t even speak the same language,
    which you could have said about me
and my own mother, and all these women in Havana
    have raised better daughters than I was

Holoholo is composed of many correlating parts that don’t settle on a particular theme or message. Part romp, part wisdom, there is more than enough in here to spark sadness, joy, regret, side-eye, and laughter in any reader. 


Risa Denenberg

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Café Online. She has published seven collections of poetry, most recently the full-length collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.

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