Displays by Gary Beck
(reviewed by Paul Dolinsky)
The book begins with poems that are stark and unrelenting, written as proems rather than in a more lyrical style. The first poem is on 9/11, followed by others that deal with issue of class inequality, the Iraq War, issues of suffering and the meaning of life. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, for the first of several poems about birds also appear.
The order and intensity of the poems early in the book, is certainly no accident’s on the poet’s part. He might have presented the poems in a more chronological fashion, which would made the second part of the book, into the first part. The poems in the second part of the book, are for the most part, I believe, written earlier in the poet’s life. They are stylistically, lyrical, more upbeat in tone, and sometimes employ rhyme. At least two of those reference the poet in his 20’s, and his travels in Europe, which appears to have occurred around that time.
However, the poet wants to hit us sharply, in the first part of this book. The severe style of many of the poems seems to be a function both of the material itself, and possibly, the poet’s own aging and hardening of attitude (of which he writes, literally, in “ The Peril of Age “, early in the book). However, it would be a mistake to view the poet as a pessimistic prophet of doom, or as expressing fatalistic resignation to suffering. Rather, Gary Beck, poet, is more the patient teacher, trying to teach through his poems, as didactic tools. The condensed clarity of phrasing of many of the poems, suits them well as teaching tools.
His work harkens back thematically, if not explicitly, to his earlier work as a director of classical Greek drama. Greek drama too, depicts much war and suffering. At the very beginning of Western drama, the Iliad tells the story of such a war, with all its attendant suffering. In classical Greece, suffering exists in the context of fate (governed by the Three Fates, who are spinners), justice (dike) and the tragic flaw of pride (hubris).
The poems, as a grouping, present several different approaches to the issue of suffering — that of humans, animals, and in the natural world. The concept of fate or chance, as the family and class into which one is born, has a significant place in this collection of poems, fate being one cause of suffering. However, even if one can’t control the accident of birth, one can control their folly, in terms of whether they learn lessons of human history and their own history. Thus, not learning the lessons of history, and one’s personal history, is the second cause of suffering, which the poet describes. Suffering is also due to lack of empathy with fellow creatures, which is the third cause of suffering. This lack of empathy applies to both human and non-humans, and figures prominently in several poems.
Often written in the first person voice, these poems express compassion for the suffering of the poor, of animals, especially if due to humans, as in bullfighting. Empathy can transcend politics. And so, there is a poem, written in the first person voice of Muslim, seeking advice from their Imam over whom to support in the aftermath of the Iraq war, reflecting human concerns in general.
To restate, the poems express the views that suffering is due to accident of birth as an expression of cosmic chance, lack of empathy with others, and not learning the lessons of one’s history and history of one’s group. It is also important that a species understand its own nature, or essence, which the poet feels that humans do not. Greek philosophy, going back to Aristotle, is likewise, very essentialist, describing things in terms of their essences (horme) which makes each thing what it is. The poet presents his view on the human essence in a very striking way, in a poem on doves and hawks, which occurs early in the book, and is one of my favorite.
doves are flock birds,
on close observation
The predatory hawk
except for a mate
is a solitary bird
with no flock urges,
only kills for food,
rarely attacks others,
lacks basic social skills,
content in nature
as long as man permits
the existence of nature.
Yet we’ve made the dove
a symbol of peace,
the hawk represents war,
that lead us astray
from urgent questions
of war and peace.
The book has several poems about war. Let me include one of these poems here, which I think is a stark and powerful anti-war poem, effective in its lyricism and didactic quality, in its positive sense, as I’ve described:
Friend or Foe
We no longer think of your U-Boats
surfacing in frigid seas,
welcoming our offspring with torpedoes.
We’ve already forgotten your aircraft
swooping down from the rising sun,
kissing our sons with tracers.
We barely remember your endless,
marching from Asian depths,
greeting our children with U.S. steel.
In each bitter war
our patriotic armies met the enemy,
sweltered, bled, blistered, froze,
obeyed their orders,
and joined the hallowed dead.
Though he writes that some wars seem to have been necessary, he decries the fact that countries needlessly pit themselves against others in in war, when co-operation to solve problems would be the wiser action. It may appear that the poet adopts a right of center attitude regarding such issues as American patriotism and wanting to curb illegal immigration into the country. But the poet is not so much ideologue of left or right, but as stated, a patient teacher, who delineates actions and reactions to events of history.
Displays is a worthwhile read, and I hope it encourages readers to explore more of Gary Beck’s poetry from his many other works.