Charles Harper Webb's Hot Popsicles - Parables, Vignettes, Allegories
Upon picking up and perusing, Hot Popsicles (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 2005), the latest book by Charles Harper Webb, the words of Poe first come to mind about a "quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore". After carefully reading through and studying each of the "poems" in the book, I've found nothing so quaint or so curious about the contents; instead, the book contains some of the best crafted poems sculptured to wonderful exactitude. Charles Harper Webb tackles, wrestles, and succeeds in that most difficult and nebulous genre to master- The Prose Poem.
Don't let the fey happy colorful cover and title fool you. This book is a serious work of literature. The presentation is that of short-short stories, flash fiction where none of the pieces are over two-and-a-half pages in length. The composition is pure lyrical poetry. With specific attention given to the long line, the cadence of each piece has an easy and comfortable flow, each poem evokes a familiarity, an illuminating moment where the thought pops in your head, "that makes perfect sense", and then the poem gains importance because the difficult meaning behind the words is flawlessly understood. This book is deep but the gift inside is unwrapped by a skillful writer.
The trump card is the subject matter. Charles Harper Webb borrows from our popular culture; fairy tales, slang, literary figures, any other trivial pursuit floating in the zeitgeist, and chops it up, mixes it up, serves it up as a very digestible, edible full meal.
The vignettes are those occasioned by real life but are so accessible as to be universal; hey, this almost happened to me too but not quite that way. Seemingly insignificant moments are detailed, from killing a bumblebee with a tennis racket to knocking a lamp over to a "for sale" sign in the yard of an adored house. The reverberations surrounding each moment are what personalize the poetry and elevate the implications.
My favorite poems are the parables, those that proffer a lesson painfully learned: Aesop's Turtle retires from racing, Conan the Barbarian rides a Greyhound bus, Hamlet having trouble with his prostrate, Superman develops Alzheimer's, Uncle Scrooge going to therapy. These are mythical figures suffering from all too-human foibles in everyday situations and handling them true to character, thus a lesson experienced and learned.
And then there are the allegories, those poems that purport one thing at face value but are much richer deep inside, like a chocolate filled iceberg. These abstract ideas are a pleasure to find. With the wit of Wilde, the dark humor of Saki, and the suffering of Candide, each allegory deservedly engenders a deep deliberation. Consider the title poem, "Hot Popsicles". They are Popsicles sold cheap because 'they melted and refroze,' but they are still good enough to elicit sexual feelings by taste and shape, a testament to losing youth but not vitality, and so forth. And there are plenty of other thought provoking allegories- A fisherman catches a Woolly Mammoth, a man paints a truck purple to get girls, another man searches for his "secret name", a confusion between the words marvels and marbles.
Overall, I find this book to be an important piece of art. Charles Harper Webb has effectively expanded and transformed the short prose poem and he does it with consummate expertise and dazzling proficiency. Each poem was like a found treasure, each enlightening in its own right. I only wish the book was longer.
Hot Popsicles, Charles Harper Webb, (c) 2005 The University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 0-299-20994-6, 70 pages, $14.95 paperback