What Things Are Made Of by Charles Harper Webb
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013)
reviewed by Gary Dop
Charles Harper Webb’s poems pulse with comedy and wit, but the distinguishing feature of his latest collection, What Things Are Made Of, is his unflinching, honest study of contemporary life. Void of contemporary niceties, Webb’s book tackles the things of our lives. With all his usual humor and ease, Webb writes of our simplicity: “Brains hold tight to what they think helps them survive—”
Although this statement could be dropped into a thesis on cognition—familiar territory for Webb, a PhD in psychology—the line is included in Webb’s inquiry into Jackass: The Movie. Here, he navigates the oddness of remembering the ridiculous film and failing to remember loftier material. The line itself may as well serve as the motto for Webb’s critique of contemporary culture. What Things Are Made Of suggests that so much of how we are taught to survive in the world is based on clumsy survival mechanisms and social ruses.
Webb, the humorist provocateur, playfully dismantles our constructions and returns us to our simplest things—pleasure, taste, our historical moment. What other 21st century poet would dare to cry out, “I adore my privileged American life!” In “At Lamaze,” where the above line appears, Webb is not employing the privilege buzzword to tackle its expected associations of race, class, or gender, but he also does not shy away from acknowledging and celebrating the benefits of American life. Most other poets would feel obligated to soften their exclamation, to feign a sense of the humility in recognizing an unjust world. Webb, however, finds the moment where false humility is unwelcome and where a singular voice drops pretension in order to fully appreciate a good thing.
Webb knows that the father in a Lamaze class celebrating life—via yoga, sitcoms, and electric garage doors—cannot suddenly consider the larger world. The father says, “Forget global warming and overpopulization,” and this is not meant to dismiss the world, but to present the honesty of a father—and, of course, to make us laugh. The father rejects everything that hinders celebrating what he now sees: how fortunate he is to have modern medicine that insures his child and wife will survive delivery and that, years ago, insured his own survival through a difficult birth. There is no space here for the father to give an aside to the troubles of others. This is unfiltered fatherhood, a man consumed with one family and survival. The poem closes: “I know for sure I’ve won life’s lottery,” and we find no lingering falsity or superiority, only unhinged appreciation, gratitude.
This freedom is refreshing, and nowhere is it on greater display than in the collection’s opening piece, “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used to Be.” The poem, a burst of Webb at his most sardonic, considers the ice cream truck from a postmodern literary theorist’s vantage, but rather than applying a theoretical lens to the ice cream truck, Webb applies a full catalog of postmodern lenses, which ultimately serve as absurdist mockery, and one might say, deconstruction, of postmodern theory:
The products sold reinforced a Capitalist hegemony—
Fudgesicle (racist), Eskimo (not Inuit) Pies, Torpedo
(military-industrial imperialist), Popsicle (no Momsicle), etc.
The sugar in our treats deconstructed sweetness into cavities,
obesity, diabetes. The (always) man in (always) white—
who pulled, from the back of his condensation-smoking-truck,
products iced with polluted air which our tongues melted,
loving the cold jolt—may have been a child-molester,
exploited immigrant, or untreated dyslexic.
Webb rejects the expected angle—the inclusive delicacies of politicized criticism—to show that clunky theory can steal us from, well, the ice cream. Thankfully, his poems end with more than a dismantling; Webb regularly pushes toward the thing that matters, the taste that is good.
In “Bimbo Limbo,” for example, we laugh our way through his lusty recollection of ex-girlfriends. Here we receive the untethered male gaze without the filter of 21st century pleasantries, which provides a more honest platform from which the poem can spring to its truer aim, our mortality. His bimbos, we learn, have been lost to the likes of “breast cancer, car wreck, some disease I’ve never heard of,” and it would be false to pretend that the speaker’s memories are more heightened than “Britney’s heavenly thighs” and Jessica in cutoffs. This is a poem, after all, about the dying human, an animal, and the animal need not pretend virtue when considering those like him who are, “keeping heads out of the river, enjoying the swim / and view, though the current’s picking up.”
There are other poets, no doubt, who venture down these waters, but Webb, ever the adventurer, takes the unexpected branch. Suddenly these ample bimbos in Catholic limbo have semantically freed Webb to shift celestial limbo to the venue for bimbos doing the limbo—“How low can you go?”—for his speaker’s satisfaction. Even here, Webb can’t end with absurdity. The poem closes with a stanza to elevate the memory, the hope, the loss, and the bimbos, who are no longer objectified figures, but have become catalysts for the thing that matters:
A place where that happens can’t be too far
From heaven, especially if my old girlfriends are there,
God being Beauty, after all, God being love.
This is this poet laughing and smiling, not the poet believing in God and the afterlife. Webb finishes his trek with the honest, corrected memory, the realization that the experiences lost, imperfect as they may be—the experiences we’re all going to lose when we slip under the current—are among the supreme things, the fullness of beauty and fleeting love. This poem, and the whole of What Things Are Made Of, reminds us that an honest angle and a laugh are at the core of things that keep us alive.