Gary Beck, Songs of a Clerk, (Winter Goose Publishing, 2014), 120pp, $11.99. ISBN 978I941058169
Reviewed by Conrad Geller [Originally published in LP4, November 2014]
Misery has always had its uses in art. Much of William Blake’s Songs of Experience makes an outraged protest against the cruelties of early industrial England. Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Winesberg, Ohio draw stark portraits of the grinding smallness of American small-town life.
Gary Beck’s Songs of a Clerk fits neatly into that tradition. All the people in these poems, and the speaker especially, do some kind of office work, although exactly what that is goes unspecified. Constrained by the clock and driven by uncaring supervisors, they hate their meaningless duties and dream of escape, and of nobler lives. They constantly feel bored, unfulfilled, and resentful. We are a long way here from Aristotle’s art as a means of producing pleasure, and we don’t even have the comfort of an Aristotelian cathartic release. Though the poems constitute a kind of sequence, there is no climax and no resolution, just the dreariness with which we began.
‘Dreary’, in fact, seems to be the durable leitmotif of this collection, used, in some form or other, nine times by my count, along with plenty of cognates like ‘drabness’. Conditions of employment are characterized by (I presume) metaphorical expressions such as ‘brutal overseers’, ‘office prison’, ‘the lash’. It’s impossible to miss the point: the speaker passionately wishes he were doing something else; specifically, writing poetry.
Dreariness of theme, however, doesn’t necessarily have to mean dreariness of language. The poems here have their moments of surprise and delight, especially in the innovative choice of words. For example in the first poem, ‘Greeley Square’, we are shown vehicles ‘passioning the city’. In the same poem we are confronted by striking neologisms like ‘sootness’ and, in a later poem, ‘adoze’. Scattered throughout we find remarkable phrases like ‘coffee urn of atonement’ and, one of my favorites, ‘[f]at lady of corporate thighs’. In contrast, tired phrases slip in now and then, such as traffic ‘honking, roaring’, and workers ‘blighted by papers/ and unfulfillment’.
Our hero, if he can be called that (was Prometheus a hero?), longs hopelessly for escape. In ‘Brief Flight’ for example, a metaphorical ‘bird of kindness’ lands at his feet in the subway, but he despairs of his emancipation:
“Messenger. Frail prophet.
“For the last flight
“there are not wings enough.”
‘Imagine’ extends the idea of fantasy and flight, way out to the ‘ultimate distance’ of ‘glyptodonts’/ [. . .] Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Deneb’. He daydreams of
[…] writing, white beaches,
the softness of a woman
curled upon a midnight bed
The despairing poet’s real life revolves around the four settings of the office, the subway, the park, and his mostly lonely room, although he seems to have gotten lucky once or twice. Of these, the subway is a dark, Hadean place and the park, where he eats lunch, has light and green things and pretty women walking by. Over the time spent in the park, however, there always looms the shadow of clock hands summoning him back to the dungeon.
I don’t know whether Beck has ever laboured fourteen hours a day in a clay pit, as some (including myself) have, but it’s hard for me to make Hell out of filing papers and making copies (maybe I should write poems about that experience – I’m sure they would be more cheerful than these). The reason for the gloom, of course, is that the speaker of these lines is a poet, and he senses that the banality of his existence is crushing his flights of poetry. He feel himself ‘a victim of my pencils’ and, in ‘Pent’, he sees his ‘workless fingers/ […] attached to idle arms’, which were
meant to strum lyres,
stroke sloe-eyed maidens
In another poem, ‘Disaster’, he compares himself with his coworkers:
The people in my office
laugh and chatter all day long.
while I puissant navigator
founder on an iceberg.
Somehow, however, all this suffering, by the speaker and those around him, hardly moves beyond description to impact. I think it may be because no one (with one exception) is given a name. Lunch is eaten, but we’re not told what it is – peanut-butter sandwiches or leftover escargot? I know. In my head at this moment I can hear the post-modernist argument: “But that’s just the point. These are nameless people eating anonymous lunches.” That a hueless language is necessary to depict a hueless landscape is belied by what I think may be the best poem in the collection, ‘Anticipation’. Here, in what seems a switch from office to factory, an ageing worker contemplates the life ahead of him. He has a name, Dave, and his past dream is specific (a ‘house in The Bronx’), as is his assessment of his present situation
“weak heart, ailing wife,
“soon too old.
“The machine needs nimble fingers.
“What will I do then?
This is one of the few times when the poet “gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name” with telling effect. You can’t beat Shakespeare.
As to traditional form, the poet stays largely within the current practice of free verse. Most of his sentences are intact, though he occasionally indulges in catalogs, for example in ‘Journey’.
Only occasionally is there a stab at rhyme. One poem, ‘Bitter Awakenings’, consists of three ABAB quatrains, but here the language uncharacteristically struggles under the burden of the rhyming:
First school, then work the pattern,
avoiding much pain and care,
then deceived by a slattern,
taking refuge in despair.
This poem, which reads a little bit like a workshop exercise, lacks the language as well as the coherence of his other work.
Songs of a Clerk is part kvetch and a little bit of kitsch, but it also provides moments of exciting, innovative language and sharp imagery in a thoughtful presentation. Finally, that’s all that matters.