In What Things Are Made Of, Charles Harper Webb displays such a wonderfully quirky, idiosyncratic voice, whether writing about oil-slicked, doomed penguins or puppy love. His poems careen between wild hyperboles, the irony of looking back at youthful indiscretions and unrequited or disappointed love, to the joy he feels with his beloved small son and wife, and his love of old rock bands like the Stones or Led Zeppelin. But there’s always something interesting, fascinating in this collection, something that makes us read and keep turning the pages, to see what new and deliriously strange take he’ll have on the things of this world.
One of Webb’s favorite poetic ploys is to pile up instances and examples until they seem to be almost spinning out of control, taking on lives of their own. It’s an effective strategy to get at the confusion, chaos, miserableness, but also the sheer fecundity of life. Webb employs this technique in some of the poems of the opening section, such as in “At Lamaze,” where after birthing classes Webb and his wife are taking and after the delivery of their new son, the poet speculates on how times have changed for the better in terms of medical outcomes in general and infant and mother mortality specifically: “Let’s chant a hallelujah chorus to biologists who scour/the Amazon for wonder drugs.”
He goes on to extol, in raptures both serious and ironic:
I adore my privileged American life! I adore
my yoga class, executive boxing, electric garage door,
security system with its ululating false alarms.
I adore my insurance agent, my mortgage company,
even the cop who busts me for a bad taillight.
In short, Webb is a worshipper of the material world, the only one, he knows, we can be absolutely sure of.
But this world can indeed be perilous, as Webb shows us in “Without a Paddle,” where he takes the old cliché about being out of luck and out of hope on a river of river of excrement and turns the image into something terribly literal: “So much water; so little him,” Webb says of a guy in a small boat in a big bay, with bad weather and a choppy sea starting to get perilous, a situation quickly spiraling out of control and growing more dangerous by the minute:
The motor coughs, dies.
He leans over the side to check the prop.
His glasses slip off his nose into the brine.
He grabs for them; his car keys drop
from his coat pocket. “Shit! Shit! Shit”
He’s close to crying...”
It’s interesting here that to sort of mitigate against the disaster, Webb employs a rhyme: “prop” and “drop,” imposing the order of formal poetry onto the chaos of life, but chaos and disaster will triumph here, for in the last line we get, “...the first water sloshes over his new shoes.” If this poem weren’t so funny, it would be tragic. But Webb is great at that slapstick reminiscent of old, classic silent comedy shorts that are born out of discomfort and pain, like those featuring Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and basset-hound faced Ben Blue.
He’s also great at evoking the pain and paradise of being young and thinking you’re in love, or at least, in lust. In “It Had to Do with Candy Sanders” Webb gets at the heartache of puppy love, when he says of the throb he feels for Candy, “How/would it be to want someone so much I cried?” Here, the feeling of desperate young love is in no way vitiated by Webb’s setting it in the context of all those sappy early rock ‘n’ roll songs from the 50’s and 60’s. He rattles off such performers as “Little Anthony sobbing...” and Ben E. King, and such paeans to young, doomed love as Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel. All of his efforts go to show Candy Sanders he’s worthy of her noticing him, as a lot of us hopeless kids had gone out of our way to desperately woo some unattainable earth angel, though Webb seems to have been luckier with Candy than I ever got with Joanna Finchley.
But my favorite poem in the collection is the lovely “Bed & Breakfast,” where Webb and his wife are spending a childfree holiday. He uses the repetition of the clause, “I laugh, you laugh” to signal to us how good a time they’re having: “We could be playing doctor, stifling giggles so parents/won’t hear.” And then there’s this wonderful image: “I laugh, you laugh to feel the fire//we make by rubbing limbs.” To read this poem is to fall in love all over again with one’s spouse or lover or partner, or whoever one is lucky enough to be with.
Webb is also a careful craftsman, a master of the music of language. There’s something of Philip Roth’s love of scatological, sex crazed diction in “Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh, Dah Dah Dah! Doesn’t Look Like Much in Print,” when Webb opens the poem with, “Hammered, though, on Led Zeppelin’s bass and guitar/didn’t those sounds surge and shake like Linda in Mom’s/Simca with the stuffing coming out?” Notice how he goes from the colloquial “Hammered” to a delirious ride of alliteration in “sounds surge and shake,” and slant rhymes like “Linda” and “Simca.” And his invective against teenage enemies for Linda’s affections is positively Homeric, as later in the poem he describes his rival Fred as (“the double crossing sack of scat”) and tells us that he made “a strawberry frappe out of Fred’s mouth...”
What Things Are Made Of is one of the best poetry collections I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s satisfying in terms of theme, content, and language. It’s a big-hearted book that’s so much fun to read you can’t help but glide through the poems like the best fiction. But then you want to go back and read them again and again, savoring the skill it took to create these poems.