By Charles Rammelkamp
The title poem of Charles Harper Webb’s new collection is an apt metaphor for his poetic vision. “When I lean to my right, left arm stretched / over my head…” the poems begins: all sorts of fresh angles and relationships appear. “All cars / in the condo parking lot incline.” What else? “All waves / tilt as they roar toward shore….” Charles Harper Webb looks at the world from a unique perspective, reminding us of Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” With refreshing, original metaphors and vivid language, Webb tilts our vision as well. And his poems are often just so funny!
Take the poem, “Rain Stick,” sprung from the contemplation of one of those long hollow tubes filled with pebbles or beans, pins arranged in the inside of the tube so that when you upend it, it sounds like rain, and “you feel released,
And you thought it was just a stocking stuffer or a tchotchke! So many of the poems in Sidebend World – and throughout Webb ‘s work generally – spring from these casual observations of mundane objects we might normally overlook – “Dominion of Blue” about the Galapagan booby made famous by Charles Darwin; “Box of Butterflies” with its curious observations (“Monarch: orange and black Majesty to which I bowed, seeing you / flap, frantic, on my killing jar’s drenched throne.”); “Bait Ball,” a poem shaped like an ornament on the page, “Not really round, but / suitable for bouncing.” He notes later in the poem: “London, to the / Luftwaffe, was a bait ball.” “The Woman on the Cover of Glamour Magazine” “so full of tigress-in-bed- / and tyrant-in-the-boardroom.”
Of course, “monsters” and “heroes” both get a slightly different look, too, in Webb’s sidebend world. In “Here Be Monsters,” he dismisses Cave Bear, Saber Tooth, Scylla, Charybdis, Dracula. “Now monster means the flippered child, / the protoplasmic blob.” “Monster’s // a murderer with bulging, jailhouse arms. / A job-search agency. An energy drink.” Monster is the disfigured prom queen burned up in an accident with a drunk driver, the one “every boy wanted, just last year / to kiss.” The poem, “You Don’t Want to Meet the Ai-Uru” takes another sideways look at a monster, and “Fear Factor,” a satire on Reality TV, similarly describes a rescue gone wrong, despite the hero’s “class-president grin.”
Which indeed takes us to heroes. In “Meanwhile, back on Mt Olympus…” we get Webb’s amusing take on Achilles and the limping god Hephaestus who makes his shield. In Webb’s sidebend world they seem like ordinary people, if only because he elevates us all to the status of “hero.” “Hero Food” riffs on an instruction from Food Styling for Photographers that is its epigraph. For although we need heroes more than the Greeks did, what we get is “Kenny Carrot leading the Allied Vegetables / against the merciless axis of Tooth Decay,” as Webb’s imagination takes us laughing all the way through a Homeric epic of the staging of a photoshoot for canned corn. (Take “canned corn” in both senses!)
But he can also be empathetic in his sardonic way, displaying a real tenderness for his son. In “Emergency” we see him and his wife overcome with despair as they have visions of the boy’s life “leaking away” to some mysterious disease. “Barred / from the spinal test for meningitis – “Can’t have fathers / passing out!” – I roam the halls, dodging other dads’ dead eyes.” In “Nice Hat” he watches his son trying to master skateboarding, knowing the boy is “too thought-bound ever // to dissolve into pure speed. The jabs of “I might / fall,” “I’ll look bad,” “It’ll hurt,” punch / through his guard, bloodying his nose….” Yet he protects his son from the “mohawked thug” who calls him “Dickweed.” How protective we are when we see our loved ones are so vulnerable!
The best of Webb’s poems are the ones like “A Far Cry from Eli Whitney” and “Down the Bayou” that start us out in one place but by the time they’re over have taken us someplace totally unexpected. ”Hey, The Sopranos / are on TV!” he writes in “Down the Bayou.” “Five minutes in I’m calling guys // “Frankie the Frog” and “Lenny Lasagna,” / swigging vino, yelling “Fugedabout it”…” and only a stanza later, having caught a snatch of “She Loves You” on the stereo, he’s “tromping / through cold Liverpool rain, winking at birds, / all of whom I’ve shagged, and now call Luv.”
Sidebend World is Charles Harper Webb’s twelfth collection of poetry. Any of them will take you inside, outside, sideways down with, as one critic puts it: “compassionate intelligence and an abiding wonder at the beautiful strangeness of the world.” Amen.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.