Carolyn Krieg © 2013 All Rights Reserved
Charles Harper Webb
LISTEN HARD! the sign shouts. YOU CAN’T SEE THE
DOCTOR IF YOU DON’T HEAR YOUR NAME.
“It’s for laughs,” the nurse explains. “This office needs to lighten
This waiting room looks bigger than the baseball field where, in
1888, “Dummy” Hoy introduced hand-signals to the major leagues.
Some patients speak sign language here. Some scream in one
I’m here because, for twenty years, rock-and-roll crashed jumbo
jets into my tympanums, and now a wall of whine has trapped me: tinny
tinnitus—incurable as death, and unlikely to end in even one great symphony
Still, dragging the remains of my faith in medicine, I’ve come.
Patients could play a ballgame here. Our names could flash to call
us when the scoreboard isn’t full of cartoon ear-trumpets hurled high on
Who’ll argue, if he whispers, the umpire’s “Strike three!”—or
know I sigh, “My ears are conchs in which I do not hear the sea.”
Charged with raising poultry without a permit, David Ashley appeared in court in Seneca
Falls, NY, with a rooster. Asked to remove it, he said it was his attorney.
—News of the Weird
It was tough being the one student who aspired to work for chicken
“Millet’s fine with me, ” he’d bwock as classmates snacked on (for
all he knew) his relatives, rolled in spice and citrus marinade.
How he loathed humans: the comb-less males, their feathers limp
as rain-soaked worms; the cow-hipped, chattering hens, desperate to make
each male mount only one of them; the lies that spewed out of their fleshy
beaks full of dull knives designed to torture as they chewed.
“Professors call cowards, chicken; sloppy writing, chicken-
scratch; bad behavior, chicken shit, right in front of me,” he wrote in his
diary. “Dr. Hawke told me, Stop running around like your head’s been
cut off, bird-brain. And the ACLU doesn’t give a cluck!”
“I’ll show them all,” he squawked each morning, memorizing case
law instead of greeting the day he’d come to dread—writing briefs instead
of cock-of-the-walking hen to hen back on the farm, his feathers flaming
in the sun.
Only when—perched on the podium for his valedictory address—
he saw the other students stuffed like Christmas turkeys with chagrin, did
the glory of his victory, in shades of green and gold and purple, dawn.
Then, precedent be damned, didn’t he crow!
Elephant of Surprise
A husband comes home early, sees his best friend’s Mazda parked
outside, bursts into the bedroom, and finds his wife en flagrante with an
A party of miners, rushing gold-laden mules through the Sioux’s
sacred Black Hills, are ambushed, massacred, and scalped by an angry
Historians tell of bombs raining on Pearl Harbor, swarms of
torpedoes, and sneaky Japanese. To this day, few dare to speak the name
The chicken of outrage pinwheels past, squawking so everyone
The antelope of enthusiasm bounds by, rhinestoned antlers
The guinea pigs of chagrin carpet the carpet—glad to trip you up
and knock you down.
The puppy of embarrassment humps your leg no matter where you
The elephant of surprise, though, glides stealthy as a snake; flies
silent as an owl; stalks noiseless as a panther before—trumpeting loud
enough to kill the living, then wake them up again—it springs.
Homo Habilis—Handy Man
— for Dad
Ages ago, he roamed African savannahs,
trimming thickets, straightening stones, listening
as the million fluttering tongues of trees
told him how to fix the forest up. Later,
when not flaking arrowheads and knives,
his descendants widened cave-entrances,
smoothed walls, hung bearskin doors, turned
flat rocks into tables and chairs. Even asleep,
he dreamed of projects: fingers twitching,
muscles burning, heart aching to make
improvements. Eons crawled by as evolution
equipped the house-in-the-suburbs with windows
to paint and un-stick; doors to re-hang; sockets
to wire; rain-gutters to repair; always more
things on which to lavish skill and care—
things that, to mask his joy, the man calls “chores.”
Charles Harper Webb's latest book, What Things Are Made Of, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2013. Recipient of grants from the Whiting and Guggenheim foundations, Webb teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at California State University, Long Beach.
from Poet’s Bookshelf II: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art
Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems
Sylvia Plath, Ariel
Edward Field, Stand Up Friend, With Me
James Tate, The Oblivion Ha-Ha
Philip Levine, They Feed They Lion
Russell Edson, The Intuitive Journey & Other Works
Ron Koertge, Diary Cows
Edward Hirsch, Wild Gratitude
Rather than cite classic authors that every poet should have read, I’ve chosen to list books which had a major impact on my development as a poet when I was struggling to define myself as one. If these books are out of print, other books by the authors will likely do as well. They are listed, not in order of importance, but in the order in which I discovered them.
Dylan Thomas can be heavy sledding, and can exert a bad influence on developing poets; still, at his best, he shows as well as any poet of the 20th century what the lyric poem can do. Reading “Fern Hill” aloud, I still risk bursting into tears.
Sylvia Plath’s Ariel: Intensity, energy, audacity, passion, brilliant metaphors, and just plain madness. What can I say?
Field showed me how moving plain-spoken truth-telling can be, when coupled with an idiosyncratic imagination, and genuine vulnerability. “The Bride of Frankenstein” helped me to see pop culture (and in fact the whole world) as potential poetry. “Graffiti” is “Fern Hill” set in New York, with dirty words.
Tate is fantastic for jolting the mind off its usual track, and for the permission he gives fellow writers to play. The energy, imagination, and wacky fun that crackles in his poems has inspired me since I discovered him back in the seventies.
Philip Levine showed me a way to write seriously without becoming ponderous. His work expresses deep anger and deep tenderness from a profoundly male perspective. His work, in short, has cojones. He does wonderful things with (relatively) plain speech, and those mainstays of fiction: character and narrative.
Reading Russell Edson was, for me, an all-out epiphany. I’d been having thoughts (and dreams) like his little poem-stories ever since I was a child, but hadn’t had a clue what to do with them. Edson is mind-expanding without the dead brain cells and trips to the ER.
I first encountered Koertge’s work when he submitted it to Madrona, a magazine I was helping to edit. As a recent graduate of a Very Serious Writing Program, I wasn't sure if Koertge was a brilliant comic and irreverent provocateur, or if he’d completely miscalculated the effects of his work. In either case, the poems were what no one from my program would have dared to be: hilarious. Koertge proved to be a wonderful corrective to the pompous, serious-as-a-bladder-infection stuff that the prestige places were full of. And he still is today.
I discovered Hirsch at a time when I was trying to break out of a cavernous rut and remake myself as a poet. The tenderness, accessibility, humanity, willingness to take emotional risks, and non-stodgy seriousness of Hirsch’s poems opened possibilities for me to add depth and resonance to my own work, without sacrificing the spirit that made it tick.
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