Amplified Dog Charles Harper Webb. Red Hen (CDC, dist.), $15.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-59709-022-3
In the title poem of Charles Harper Webb’s sixth book of poems, Amplified Dog, a dog barking into a microphone in a California suburb is as close as the residents may ever get to the howl of a wolf laying claim to his territory. The man who sets the dog at the mic thinks the territory is heartache and the bark a call to bring his woman back, but the dog, who knows his human as “. . . stupid and sad, just like a man,” woofs his appraisal of the causes of heartache in contemporary life: “. . . Woof! You work too much, / and don’t enjoy enough. . . /. . .Woof! Even sex is work for you.” That the wild is electrified is not surprising given the poet’s fifteen year turn as a rock guitarist. He knows that in the buzz and bling of consumer culture, the unrelenting noise of it, the wild could not get a yawp in edgewise were it not amplified. But amplification is not enough; someone must hear it. With a growl the poem’s speaker responds, “I’m here. I’m listening.”
Who is this speaker? A Whitman man who can hear the wild, who can take a yawp as well as he can give it, a guy known to “kick-box four times a week, lift weights, hunt, fish, and (not) take guff,” who, nonetheless, worries that his “. . . sperm counts are falling.” (“Sperm Counts Are Falling”). The “here” that he has aged into is the shift from rock and roll to householding: a life of wife, son, and taking out the trash. In Webb’s poems, the world of husband and father is not narrow. In the first section of the book, desire, hilarity, anger, and loss are sidekicks in poems whose titles reveal a consciousness that unabashedly leans into quandaries it cannot solve: “Prayer to Tear the Sperm-Dam Down,” “Cyclops,” “My Son is Called ‘Developmentally Delayed,'” “Consider How the Toilet Overflows,” and “The Animals are Leaving,” the last a poignant catalogue that bids farewell to extinct species.
In many of the poems, the overriding style of speech is an idiocyncratic mingling of rough-and-tumble diction, sharp-edged observation, and full-throttle engagement with a weird assortment of subjects, a brilliant fortissimo of voice and form in which clearly delineated rhythm and vivid internal rhyme draw the meaning and the reader through the poem. Once entered, there is no turning back. This is Webb’s signature style, and, while it is compelling, especially in a single poem, when encountered repeatedly, it can feel less like engagement and more like entrapment.
The trap is sprung by the collection’s skillful sequencing; its fortissimo is modulated by poems that turn away from linguistic swagger and formal deering-do toward a tone of tender bafflement and a style of thought that admits uncertainty, instability, or blurred perception. The language of poetry is, as the Brazilian poet Joao Cabral de Melo Neto has written, a knife all blade (“Uma Faca so Lamina”) in which the knife wounds the one who wields it, poetry exacting an opening of self. This is the action of the more modulated poems. One of them, “A Meal Not Eaten,” begins with a comic pastiche of Chinese take-out and ends with a morphing image that questions what is real, the speaker in a bed “in which I can almost touch her, / asleep beside me as my wife, / though she is not, and hasn’t been / for a long time.”
The two concluding poems also destabilize expectations. “The End,” a riff on endings that dazzles like the fireworks finale of a rock concert, is followed by “In the Beginning was the Word,” an invocation to the generative power of language in which the son bursts into the clarity of speech: “CAT,” “SOCKS,” “SHOES,” “DA-DA.” Like a tape loop, it sends the reader back to the primal call of the initial poem whose clear “Woof!” set the argument of the book in motion. By linking in multiple ways to the beginning, the final poems make clear that what language has claimed is the territory of the domesticated dog who has preserved his wildness enough to bark the raw, disturbing truth.– J.C. Todd