Charles Harper Webb. What Things Are Made Of. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.
Have you ever read a Mark Halliday poem and thought “Gee, I’d really like this if only the speaker were a little less curmudgeonly?” Or maybe you’ve read a few David Kirby poems and felt that you could get into them if only the speaker was just a little less cool? Well, Guggenheim fellow and former professional rocker Charles Harper Webb might just be what you’re looking for. In What Things Are Made Of, as in many of his ten previous full-length collections, Webb blends humor and angst as he engages in a heartfelt struggle for an ever-elusive certainty in an uncertain world. Yet unlike in his previous collections, here his speakers seem to reach a kind of joy and acceptance, at least momentarily.
The collection begins with “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used to Be” as a speaker simultaneously throws his arms wide to the world while saying “[L]ook, isn’t it silly how I throw my arms wide to the world,” as if afraid that the poetry and critical theory jocks may come beat himup for engaging in all this uncool ecstasy. Or, as he says it, “I’m well aware it’s problematic to miss the ice cream trucks” and “The sugar in our treats deconstructed sweetness into cavities, obesity, diabetes.” He wants us to know that he understands the issues at play, that such understanding complicates, yet does not eradicate, his joys. Sure, when the ice cream man gave him a free Klondike Bar after he’d dropped his, perhaps the vendor “cursed [him] covertly as the spoiled spawn of world despoilers” but the image that stays with the speaker is of the man driving off in his truck, “grinning as dusk sifted gently down.” That pure nostalgic tone carries us beautifully through the last stanza of the poem until Webb playfully hip checks us back into angsty adulthood with one of the deftest line breaks this slang-loving reader has seen:
and on the last pitch of the day, I sent the ball
sailing over Clarkie’s house, through the warm suburban dark
into the black-hole future that had been always already sucking
what I thought was happiness away.
We meet a like-minded speaker in the title poem as he grapples with questions such as, “How can a thing bouncy and bright as thought / vanish when a pump in my chest quits” and “Is Death a substance? / In the case of cyanide or a bullet to the brain, / it seems to be,” ultimately pushing them all aside for the “weight of love that warms [a child’s] flesh” because “this offer is too good to last long.” There is a lovely Randall Jarrell-like quality to this poem as well as others, such as “Word of Mouth,” “Nerves of Titanium,” and “Mummies to Burn,” where the poem is able to hit just that right balance of loving the world while recognizing the inherently problematic and tenuous nature of doing so.
Some might wonder if we’re tired yet of aging intellectual white guy poems. Yep, death happens guys. Yep, sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug. Do we really need another collection about it? I’m usually inclined to say “No, we do not,” but this collection stops that protest before it leaves my throat—mainly because it chokes up as I read (and reread) poems such as “Worry Won’t Help” and “Karen, Lost” where Webb brings us into the anxieties of a father-to-be in a way that seems to cut to the core of those experiences.
This is not to say that the collection doesn’t have its rough moments. The poem “Liar’s Ball” offers a good example of where Webb slips. In a Family Circus-worthy moment, the speaker’s son attempts to shift the blame for his own “pencil-snarls scrawled on the wall,” causing the speaker to lament that “he’s joined the League of Lying Animals—totem, / the angler fish; mascot, the trap-door spider. He wears / the sacred T-Shirt: Adam, whining, ‘What apple?!’” The poem is simply too dear and too overdone to win me over. Still, aside from this sort of poem, I want to gush like a groupie about What Things Are Made Of.
I feel as if I haven’t been able to do justice to my excitement about this collection because each time I look for lines to quote to support my opinion I realize that it isn’t so much what individual lines or moments do in these poems that make them so wonderful, but rather how they act as a whole. When Webb slips in wry one-liners such as “They’re no / Einsteins, those scientists” and “the only good duck is a taped duck,” or observes that “Rumpelstiltskin could spin a sweater / from my pale chin-hair” and “My parents promised / age would cure my fidgets; they were wrong,” I laugh out loud—but you need to context of the whole poem to get the joke.
Webb’s poems are wonderful in the way they reach for what’s right about the world without denying what’s wrong, proving what seems to be one of Webb’s main arguments in this collection: that it isn’t necessarily the individual molecules that make life so amazing, but rather how they all fit together.
—Jennifer Schomburg Kanke