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Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies (American Poets Continuum) Paperback – November 1, 2001
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About the Author
Charles Harper Webb was born in Philadelphia, and grew up in Houston, Texas, where he learned to hunt, fish, play baseball, pick guitar. He worked for fifteen years as a professional rock singer/guitarist, and is now a licensed psychotherapist and Professor of English at California State University, Long Beach.
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After reading the first two sections of "Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies," I find that I still didn't know much about Charles Harper Webb, really. His use of language--chatty and descriptive--didn't give me a sense of what was at stake; his sterility and harmlessness fail to threaten the reader's past opinions. This inadequacy is heightened because most of the poems concern Webb's personal anecdotes and experiences which are fairly pedestrian--friends who have been fired, beggars passed on the way to work, odes to kitchen foods.
And Webb does like to chat. To begin a poem called "Birdcage," he writes, "Wrapped in blankets, it looks like a body humped in the bed / of my Toyota truck: a five-foot rusty iron bird cage / my fiancées garbageman won't take." This is just one example of his penchant for light prose. Webb missed the chance to replace `it looks like' with `it's'; `Toyota truck' with either just `Toyota' or `truck,' and gain concision and a more poetic diction. Another chatty line: "Webb, from Middle English webbe, weaver (as in the web / of my least favorite crawling thing)"...why not simply `spider'?
The positives begin to appear in the third section, in the poem "Congratulations, Charles H. Webb, You've Just Won Ten Million Dollars". This is the best poem in the collection, the best moment. It's here we realize that many of the poems prior to it, and to come, are acts of confession. In "Congratulations..." regret commingles with boyish wonder to show what it means to construct a life out of `what-ifs' in the face of the `despite's of growing older. Webb actually addresses his groan-worthy wit and his fairly typical American life in this poem. As we reach the final stanza, he has successfully turned chat into substance.
Webb's good sense of rhythm does not hide his simple approach to his long lines, and as a result, his writing can sometimes feel dull-edged. But in other poems like "Closing Ceremonies" (also in the third section) or "Funktionslust," captivating and important observations about life shine through (via personal-turned-metaphysical recollection, or the meaning of a German word, respectively) and allow us to bear trips through non-vital descriptions of hotels or egg sandwiches elsewhere.
Charles Harper Webb is an artist of `heightened chat'--with you, or with himself in a wittily sarcastic way. While the best moments are when Webb manages to do both, he sometimes sacrifices concision and the weight of words for generalized narrative. Poems like "Congratulations...", though, do embrace his penchant for chat and clever tropes, and take the reader a baby step closer to Webb's brand of everyday wisdom.