“Letter to a Lost Friend”

There must be a Russian word to describe what has happened
             between us, like ostyt, which can be used
for a cup of tea that is too hot, but after you walk to the next room,
             and return, it is too cool; or perekhotet,
which is to want something so much over months
             and even years that when you get it, you have lost
the desire. Pushkin said, when he saw his portrait by Kiprensky,
             “It is like looking into a mirror, but one that flatters me.”
What is the word for someone who looks into her friend’s face
             and sees once smooth skin gone like a train that has left
the station in Petersburg with its wide avenues and nights
             at the Stray Dog Cafe, sex with the wrong men,
who looked so right by candlelight, when everyone was young
             and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, painted or wrote
all night but nothing good, drank too much vodka, and woke
             in the painful daylight with skin like fresh cream, books
everywhere, Lorca on Gogol, Tolstoy under Madame de Sévigné,
             so that now, on a train in the taiga of Siberia,
I see what she sees — all my books alphabetized and on shelves,
             feet misshapen, hands ribbed with raised veins,
neck crumpled like last week’s newspaper, while her friends
             are young, their skin pimply and eyes bright as puppies’,
and who can blame her, for how lucky we are to be loved
             for even a moment, though I can’t help but feel like Pushkin,
a rough ball of  lead lodged in his gut, looking at his books
             and saying, “Goodbye, my dear friends,” as those volumes
close and turn back into oblong blocks, dust clouding
             the gold leaf that once shimmered on their spines.

—Poetry, January 2013

Barbara Hamby 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 Award. Her short story collection, Lester Higata’s 20th Century (2010), won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize/John Simmons Award.

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