Review by Kathryn McMurray
by Charles Harper Webb
University of Pittsburgh Press
3400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
2009, 140 pp., $16.95
It is no surprise that Charles Harper Webb was a psychotherapist before he published five books of poetry. It is also no surprise that he is a father, a son, a husband and a musician. All of these components of his biography are evident in his culminating collection of poetry, Shadow Ball. With selections taken from his five previous books of poetry (recipients of several prestigious awards, among them the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Morse Poetry Prize for Reading the Water and the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry for Liver), Webb’s Shadow Ball shows us the full and hearty scope of human experience, shaped by music and keen perception, all through poems that are carefully crafted for sound, pacing and metaphor. Make no mistake, though; despite his credentials, awards and a demonstrated intellect (he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001), there is nothing snobbish or uppity here. Webb’s poems in this collection reveal the aesthetic of a writer who leads intuitively from the gut. Shadow Ball illuminates the range of Webb’s strange talent, a talent rooted, perhaps, in his background as a rock musician and psychotherapist, which makes him particularly skilled at capturing the small moments, the cadence and power of ordinary revelations, the drama, melodrama, tragicomedy and music in the life of Everyman, himself included. In this particular collection, Webb has distilled a poetic philosophy which centers on observation of self and society, and the relationship between the two, without appearing esoteric or pretentious.
In his essay, “The Pleasure of Their Company: Voice and Poetry” (The Cortland Review, 2006), Webb distills his aesthetic by saying: “A good poem speaks in a voice I like to hear. Though not entirely unfamiliar, the voice is like none I’ve heard before. It inspires confidence, demands and rewards attention, offering entry into a psyche that intrigues, and may delight.” He seems to apply this aesthetic, not just to reading, but also to writing. The voice in Shadow Ball creates a persona, ultimately, that we might enjoy having a beer with after work, or hitting the batting cages with on a Sunday, or swapping stories about our kids. Still, it’s an informed, intelligent and thoughtful voice and seems to crystallize the things that we were already thinking, already knowing, but didn’t have the words for. Webb has the words.
Take, for example, his poem “In Praise of Pliny” (Reading the Water, 1997). The title alone could be off-putting to those readers suspicious of patronizing poet-philosophers, but the poem saves itself from such readers by approaching Pliny the Elder with an homage to his fascination and curiosity about the natural world, which is, perhaps, absent, or at least nearly extinct, in modern society. We think we can know everything, don’t we? However, Webb’s take on Pliny is amused and reverent:
Twenty hours out of every twenty-four, Pliny labored
to stuff into his Historia Naturalis “the contents
of the entire world.” Servants read to him as he ate.
No time to waste, if he was to know how the elk-like
achlis has no knees, and so cannot lie down to sleep.
How it runs backwards dragging its huge lip.
How the mantichora has a lion’s body, scorpion’s tail,
and a human face with three rows of fangs.
Pliny, to Webb, is an odd but lovely figure. His world is a freak show, and Pliny takes it all so seriously. Still, his seriousness (spending almost every hour of the day learning and writing about these strange creatures) is compelling and endearing. Which leads Webb’s speaker to wonder at the close of the poem,
As he lay dying on the beach, could he have conceived
of people lacking all belief, devoid of wonder—
two-dimensional people who scoff at everything,
and swear their lives are dull and wretched as they roar
in horseless chariots across the earth he loved,
and soar in winged phalli through the astounding sky?
Webb has transformed Pliny, the laboring old oddball, into a hero and corrective to contemporary society’s apathy and indifference to the wonders of Earth. The message is familiar, and has been sung through scores of previous poems in literary history, but not in this voice. This is not the voice of some sappy, tree-hugging hippie, whose politics overshadow the very subject. This is not a frilly-shirted Romantic, who uses a cloud to launch into a diatribe. No, this voice does not tree-hug or lecture, but sardonically reminds us of our lack of wonder at the freakish and delightfully astounding wonders of the earth, which we move through every day with little notice, and that Pliny loved and revered. But more than that, the poem speaks to the important work of a writer observing the world, and vindicates poetry itself, by suggesting that writing and observing is not frivolous, but needed.
Webb refines the voice from Reading the Water over time, which leaves us with the new poems included in Shadow Ball. I’d like to talk about the title poem, but I need to admit something: I don’t know much about baseball. I do appreciate baseball, and have for a long while, but the statistics, abbreviations, umpire calls…it confounds me. What I appreciate about baseball is the grace, the quiet between plays, the sounds, like the satisfying crack of a bat against a ball, the deafening roar of an electrified crowd, the antiquated call style of the hot dog and peanut vendors. I like the moody, atmospheric and poetic parts of baseball. I like Cracker Jacks. But, like everything else in this world, baseball is not just baseball, nor is it simply amusement, nor is it just a collection of lovely sounds and movements, nor is it merely political. It’s complex. How do I know this? I read Webb’s poem “Shadow Ball,” which teaches me that in all of baseball’s complexity and iconic status in our culture, it is a simple joy, a stark mimeograph of the 20th century, and, at the same time, a difficult and painful metaphor for American cultural history. Here is a voice that makes me want to understand everything about baseball, but doesn’t condescend to my ignorance about the sport.
How does he pull it off? How does he make me care about the joy of the sport and the metaphor? He integrates and vindicates, using cracking, energetic imagery and weaving into the black and white cultural perceptions of the game, an intricate story, untying knots about the history of the sport and celebrating the physical grace and skill required to play baseball well.
The great irony is that Webb does so by relegating to the shadows the very thing that puts the game into play: the baseball. Of course, Webb was inspired by the real “shadow ball,” which refers to “barnstorming black teams of the Negro Leagues who liked to do their pre-game warm-up in pantomime. They threw an invisible ball around the infield, hit and fielded imaginary fly balls, making close plays and diving catches. To the fans in the stands, it all looked real” (Barbara Leonard, Music Center of Los Angeles, 2000). He beautifully pays tribute to the elegant maneuvers of the Negro Teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Birmingham Black Barons and the New York Black Yankees in the poem:
[They] beat the best of white teams at real baseball. Still, before a game,
they’d whip around-the-horn that spherical hunk of the void
they knew so well—slamming it deep, chasing it down
so skillfully few whites who saw them guessed the trick.
But Webb doesn’t skirt the issue of race. In fact, he next confronts the issue head-on by saying, “Black folks were shadows to most whites anyway,/though we whites pioneered the shadow services/for which government is famed.” He goes on to tie the prejudice and bigotry within the sport to the diminishment of American culture by writing:
[…] and the shadow intelligence
that dims high offices across the land, not to mention
shadow marriage, where couples make real mortgage
payments to shadow companies for shadow homes,
have shadow sex, and before they sleep with shadow partners,
say “I love you” without the shadowiest notion
of what they mean, which is why their kids prefer the well-
lit screens of movies and the World Wide Web
Because baseball, with or without the ball, is real. Webb’s speaker contends that theorists who claim there is no reality in reality are buffoons (“professional theorists swear there’s no/ real life, real excellence, real meaning, real real”), and those of us, who don’t operate in the shadows of government, banal institutions or academia, are experts in what is real. That is, living, moving, surviving to whatever extent we can…that is reality. “Shadow Ball” ends with a macabre but vindicated tone. The Negro players of times-gone-by laugh from their “all-black graveyards,” because they see “shadows reach out black gloves and grab us all.” Webb wrote this before Barack Obama became president. Today, for me, the poem stands as a polemic against art without free expression, diplomacy, fairness, be that baseball or poetry.
Kathryn McMurray earned her M.F.A in Creative Writing from California State University, Long Beach in 2004. She is currently working on a manuscript of her poetry and writes short stories. Her work has been published in Pearl, Red Rock Review, Nerve Cowboy and Spork. She lives in Long Beach, CA, where she teaches, continues to raise her two little boys, and is in love with her teacher/musician husband, Shannon.