February 2000

Charles Harper Webb


Charles Harper Webb Charles Harper Webb uses three names because there are so many Charles Webbs in the world. He is a rock singer turned psychotherapist and Professor of English at CSU, Long Beach.  His book Reading the Water (Northeastern University Press) won the 1997 Morse Poetry Prize and the 1998 Kate Tufts Discovery Award.  His new book, Liver, won the Felix Pollack Prize. He is a recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award.

Enthusiasm    Click to hear in real audio

"Don't overdo it," Dad yelled, watching me
Play shortstop, collect stamps and shells,
Roll on the grass laughing until I peed my pants.
"Screw him," I said, and grabbed every cowry

I could find, hogged all the books I could
From Heights Library, wore out the baseball
Diamond dawn to dusk, and—parents in Duluth—
Gorged on bountiful Candy dusk to dawn.

Not until a Committee wrote of my poems,
"Enthusiasm should be tempered,"
Did I change my song. I write now
The way I live: calm and sober, steering

Toward the Golden Mean. The Committee
Was right to withhold funds. I'd have bought
A hundred box turtles with lemon-speckled shells,
Flyfished for rainbows six months straight,

Flown to the Great Barrier Reef and dived
Non-stop among pink coral and marble cones,
Living on chocolate malts, peaches, and barbecue.
I'd have turned into a ski bum, married

Ten women in ten states, written nothing
Poetry would glance at twice, instead
Of rising at 5:00 as I do now, writing
'Til noon about matters serious and deep,

Teaching 'til 6:00, eating a low-fat meal
High in fiber and cruciferous vegetables,
Then bed by 9:00, alarm clock set
Five minutes late: my one indulgence of the day.



Stuck in Traffic, the Talk-Show 
Psychiatrist Speaks his Mind   
Click to hear in real audio

Hard to believe these drivers are people
like me, and not just animated clay: mere
speed bumps in my road, their wants and needs
and little ways stupid, annoying, trivial,
while mine are distillations of virtue and sense.

My mother, blind in a nursing home,
my sister puffing with a prolapsed mitral valve,
my ex-wife jobless, my fianc� wired like a bomb
to her biological clock—their woes, like my patients',
seem notes to skim, file, and forget.

My sprained ankle, my work load, my lingering cough—
those are concerns! Of course I hide these feelings
scrupulously as my genitals. I know to ask,
"How are you?"—to lean forward, saying,
"That must hurt," and "I know how you feel."

Some days, though, some thing—a profile on a bus,
fat raindrops riffing in the street—will punch
a button, opening the secret tunnel that links me
with everyone. I know, then, that mystics are right.
The cat crouched under a birdbath, still hunting

even with throat cancer; the crack baby convulsing
in its crib; the President sued for a blow job;
the Nepalese untouchable with AIDS—we are all one.
I want to be a better person instantly: liquidate
my house and car and bank account and give

the proceeds to my mother, sister, ex-wife, fianc�.
Thanks for your love. I'm sorry I hurt you.
Forgive me, please, I want to tell them,
and my friends, and patients, and everyone else—
especially those who hate my guts. I wouldn't need

an oval office, pomp and circumstance, a bully
pulpit. Any small mountain will do, a good
sound system, TV coverage, a team of translators,
and just enough police to make people stop
blathering, and listen carefully.



Suitcase    Click to hear in real audio

Its silver clasp looks like a man grasping
his hands above his head in victory;
the latches, like twin hatchbacks headed away.

There are no wheels, just four steel nipples for sliding.
A hexagonal seal announces the defunct
"U.S. Trunk Company." The frame is wood—

big, heavy, cheap—covered with imitation leather,
its blue just slightly darker than Mom's eyes.
"It's beautiful. Much too expensive," she told Dad,

and kissed him. The lining is pink, quilted
acetate. Three sides have pouches with elastic tops—
stretched out now, like old underwear.

I watched Mom pack them with panties and brassieres
when I was so little she didn't blush.
The right front corner has been punctured and crushed.

(I could have choked the baggage handler.)
The handle—blue plastic doorknocker—
is fringed with wrinkled tags from United, Delta,

U.S. Air (which crunched the hole, flying
the suitcase back from Houston). I'd gone there
to see Mom in the "home," and save some boyhood

relics before my sister gave them to Good Will.
"Take mine," Mom said, hearing my suitcase was full.
"I won't need luggage, the next place I go."




Charles Harper Webb: Poetry
Copyright � 2000 The Cortland Review Issue 10The Cortland Review