By Gary Beck
79 pages $10.99
The poetry in Expectations, a new collection from the prolific Gary Beck, lacks subtlety. The work is primarily political, protest and social commentary that hammers the reader with warnings, scolding, opinion and invective. There is very little humor or poeticism. Some poems make a stab at poetics by using lofty language, but the relief is short lived and often seems self-serving.
Protest and political commentary has been part of the art of poetry since the beginning. In fact, some would say, it is a poet’s duty to observe and comment on injustice, tyranny, oppression and war. The list of poets who have written such poems is nearly as long as the list of poets who have written. I recall Ginsberg’s wry and nearly heartbreaking “America,” Adrienne Rich’s dark warning in “What Kind of Times Are These,” Denise Levertov examining how poets/people can create the energy to avoid war in “Making Peace,” and Maya Angelou’s beautifully lyrical call for freedom in “Caged Bird.” When we look at these few examples pulled from the huge body of political/protest poetry we see metaphor, we see creative imagery and we see the possibility of art influencing thought and action. Mr. Beck’s poetry, in this volume, offers very little in the way of imagery, metaphor, poeticism or hope.
Perhaps there is no hope in Mr. Beck’s view of his country and its place in the wider world. Expectations opens with a poem called “Abandoned” which is one of the few pieces that uses metaphor in an interesting way. We then find “Hazards of the Road” which tries for a metaphor but slips quickly into an obvious condemnation of progress. That theme continues in “Pleasures of the Road” which lays the ills of society squarely on the production and use of automobiles. And the author nails it home with a short poem called “Rest Stop” which is anything but restful as it adds criticism of travelers, roadside advertising and the assumption that consumerists hope that their profligate buying “will cancel your casual crimes.” “I Sing My Land” follows with a blunt and unrelenting message against most everything. Then comes “Idolatry” and “Extravagance” and “Remembrance” (a long rambling personal memoir with no joy) then “Profit.” I finally took a break from these sermons after I read “Betrayers” - with the lines “They are America’s betrayers, / the men of World War II, / who went in the millions, / bearing the burden of democracy/ to distant, underprivileged shores” and then its final lines “They became the makers of power/ the abusers of tomorrow/ the slayers of the sandman.”
Generalizations are fine, I suppose, when making a point. But ignoring the authors and artists and activists (many of whom were veterans of the armed forces) who took up the anti-war, anti-bomb, pro-civil-rights movements is a little bit specious. Many more poems of this type follow with titles that encouraged me to skim along: “Blasphemy” “Renaissance” “Charity” “Vice.” When I came across a poem called “Serena” on page twenty-five I thought I’d find something interesting. And I did, though not because it is an uplifting poem. “when a migrant hand/ plucked the ripeness of her breast/ a ravenous traveler/ lusting a land of opulence, / Serena turned into a pair of shears/ rusting in an orchard.” These are interesting lines with some kind of odd mystery at the end. But I’m not sure if there are enough such moments in this collection to offset the hard-edged preaching that dominates the pages.
There are fifty-seven poems in Expectations, most of them railing against something or other. A few of the other poems seem to be reflective and they are better sounding and more interesting than the political/protest pieces. The book ends with “Eternal Yearning” a nicely written, lyrical poem, an Ars Poetica of sorts. Mr. Beck is a widely published poet/author. Some of the work in this volume demonstrates his skill, but too many of the poems seem like hastily written rants, the stuff we see so much of on social media. In his next collection it would be good to see a little less rant and a little more Gary Beck.
James Bourey is an old poet and occasional prose writer living on the edge of the northern Adirondacks. His poetry chapbook "Silence, Interrupted" was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Gargoyle and other anthologies and journals. He can often be found in darkened rooms reading aloud.