ISSUE FIVE
November 1998

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.  He recently received a 1998 Whiting Writer's Award.
Silent Letters    Read Along with the Author


Treacherous as trap door spiders,
they ambush children's innocence. 
"Why is there g h in light?  It isn't fair!" 
Buddha declared the world illusory
as the p sound in psyche.  Sartre
said the same of God from France,
Olympus of silent letters, n'est -ce pas?

Polite conceals an e in the same way
"How are you?" hides "I don't care." 
Physics asserts the desk I lean on,
the brush that fluffs my hair,
are only dots that punctuate a nullity
complete as the g sound in gnome,
the c e in Worcestershire

Passions lurk under the saint's bed,
mute as the end of love
They glide toward us, yellow eyes
gleaming, hushed as the finality
of hate, malice, snake
As easily predict the h in lichen,
choral, Lichtenstein,

as laws against throttling rats,
making U-turns on empty streets. 
Such nonsense must be memorized. 
"Imagine dropkicking a spud,"
Dad said.  "If e breaks off
your toe, it spoils your potato." 
Like compass needles

pointing north, silent letters
show the power of hidden things. 
Voiced by our ancestors,
but heard no more, they nudge
our thoughts toward death,
infinity, our senses' inability
to see the earth as round,

circling the sun in a universe
implacable as "Might Makes Right,"
ineffable as tomorrow's second r,
incomprehensible as imbroglio's g,
the e that finishes inscrutable,
imponderable, immense
,
the terrifying k in "I don't know."

 

 

Reservations Confirmed    Read Along with the Author


The ticket settles on my desk: a paper tongue
pronouncing "Go away;" a flattened seed
from which a thousand-mile leap through the air can grow.

It's pure potential: a vacation-to-be
the way an apple is a pie-to-be,
a bullet is a death-to-be.  Or is the future

pressed into it inalterably—woven between
the slick fibers like secret threads
from the U.S. Treasury?   Is my flight number

already flashing as cameras grind and the newly-
bereaved moan?  Or does it gleam under Arrivals,
digits turned innocuous as those that didn't

win the raffle for a new Ford truck? 
If, somewhere, I'm en route now, am I
praying the winged ballpoint I'm strapped into

will write on Denver's runway, "Safe and Sound"? 
Was my pocket picked in Burbank,
and I've just noticed at thirty thousand feet? 

Am I smiling, watching the clouds' icefields
melt to smoky wisps, revealing lakes
like Chinese dragons embroidered in blue below? 

Lifting my ticket, do I hold a bon voyage,
or boiling jet streams, roaring thunderstorms,
the plane bounced like a boat on cast iron seas,

then the lightning flash, the dizzy plunge,
perfectly aware (amid the shrieks and prayers)
that, live or die, I won't survive the fall?

 

 

Giant Fungus     Read Along with the Author

40-acre growth found in Michigan.
  — The Los Angeles Times


The sky is full of ruddy ducks
and widgeons, mockingbirds,
bees, bats, swallowtails,
dragonflies, and great horned owls.

The land below teems with elands
and kit foxes, badgers, aardvarks,
juniper, banana slugs, larch,
cactus, heather, humankind. 

Under them, a dome of dirt.
Under that, the World's
Largest Living Thing spreads
like a hemorrhage poised

to paralyze the earth—like a tumor
ready to cause 9.0 convulsions,
or a brain dreaming this world
of crickets and dung beetles,

sculpins, Beethoven, coots,
Caligula, St. Augustine grass, Mister
Lincoln roses, passion fruit, wildebeests,
orioles like sunspots shooting high,

then dropping back to the green
arms of trees, their roots
sunk deep in the power
of things sleeping and unknown.

 

 

Post-Vacation Tristesse    Read Along with the Author
   
The Jumbo Jet has barely shuddered off
The ground, and I'm depressed.  My scuba mask
And fins, my fly rod and beach hat

Crush each other in an overhead locker
Dark as the bedroom closet they're returning to. 
Already the week's good times melt

Together like caramels in a hot car. 
My vow to "Do this more often!" recedes
With the jade palms and sun-stroked beaches

I can barely see through my scratched window
As the pilot thanks us for "flying
United," and climbs through ectoplasmic

Clouds into the jet stream that circles
Earth's head like a tedious tune,
And like a kick in the rear, hustles us

Homeward through a sky which, though it looks
blue enough to house heaven, is colorless
As life without you, and just goes on and on.

 

 

The Wife of the Mind    Read Along with the Author


Sharecroppers' child, she was more schooled
In slaughtering pigs and coaxing corn out of
The ground than in the laws of Math, the rules
Of Grammar.  Seventeen, she fell in love
With the senior quarterback, and nearly
Married him, but—the wedding just a week
Away—drove her trousseau back to Penney's,
Then drove on past sagging fences, flooding creeks,
And country bars to huge Washington State,
Where, feeling like a hick, she studied French to compensate. 

She graduated middle-of-her-class,
Managed a Senior Center while she flailed
Away at an M.A., from the morass
Of which a poet/rock-singer from Yale 
Plucked her.  He loved her practicality; 
She adored his brilliance.  Sex was great.
They married in a civil ceremony. 
He played around, for which she berated
Herself, telling friends things were "hunky-dory."
Resentment grew... oh, you said "life"? That's another story.

 

 

Charles Harper Webb: Poetry
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FiveThe Cortland Review