Beginning with the decorative language poem, “Drip drip drip drip drip drip drop / …,” that serves as the book’s frontispiece to the lively rift of forty-five names for “the city I cannot name” (after T. S. Eliot’s “Unreal City”) in the title poem, John Beer’s language fuels a successful momentum. These are poems of energy and gesticulation, of allusion and words thick on the tongue. Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems is a twenty-first-century mirror image of the game-altering, intellectual goldmine of Eliot’s masterpiece.
Beer concerns himself with information, collage, allusion, and the joy of caffeinated, revved-up rhetoric. The best of these imaginative poems contain color and grace and a feel for sound. Beer’s vision sweeps the reader along in possibility:
No angel but goes into the ground. I found myself
walking along the side of an enormous spaceship.
“I have heard that you combine the pride of lions
with a certain aversion to laundry,” the lead man said.
What could I do but agree? The sky flashed
a green ampersand.
(“Lives of the Poets”)
He offers quickly drawn, intimate mini-worlds into which the reader is invited, into which the reader is seductively immersed:
Australia or Vermont, a tower
by a lake, a pony revolution,
a story filled with aging hipster dreams.
All of these things are yours, or something
like them. I got this globe for you.
When serious, the poems pack a dark forcefulness, and the language illuminates as it hits home:
It only burns for a second,
this composure, this disease
we accept as the cost of ourselves
(“Trapped in the Closet”)
A truck could snap his spine in half. Still he’d rage
to whisper the truth in a last gargling breath.
(“Sonnets to Morpheus”)
Something happens. The idea is
to keep people from catching on fire.
(“No One Gets Out of Here Alive / The Life of Lee Harvey Eliot”)
Beer’s concerns encompass more than just the dynamics of the poem itself. His language works within wider gestures of allusion (to other poets, pop celebrities, movies, plays, and the corporate-speak of advertising lingo), self-regarding textual references, and the philosophy of language:
I had some undeveloped photographs
With which I planned to establish
The reign of light, ten thousand years
Of light. I couldn’t quite explain
How one and one makes two, it’s
A postulate, nobody’s interested. . . .
(“Speak Yon Undiscovered Towers”)
Beer has some good chops and a solid punch:
It was summer in the parking garage. Someone’s dog
skidded into a post. A Frisbee followed.
(“Search for Tomorrow, The Perfumed Crypt or Four Quarters in Eight Bits”)
The poems repeatedly reference Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets,” as well as the work of John Ashbery, whose bland tonal juxtapositions and sophisticated disengagement are evidenced throughout. Beer’s undeniable intelligence, clairvoyance, and enthusiasm are sometimes coupled with a cynicism that the poem cannot stand on its own. If a narrative is evident, the poem breaks it apart before it comes to fruition, all the while mocking it.
As smart and articulate as Beer proves himself to be line by line, the speaker’s role in these poems is often muted by detachment. Beer embraces an intellectual stance from which he reveals himself only intermittently. The convivial tone he adopts in the ten pages of footnotes read as more genuine (here I think we get Beer’s most natural voice) than the tone of some of the poems themselves. In the notes, he goes so far as to direct the reader to disregard the words in “Lives of the Poets” and replace them with ones he now reveals. A cute move—indicative of a sly insider sharing needed information—but maybe also a self-referential gesture that loops back on itself one too many times.
The moments Beer loses the thread are the same moments he relies too much on reference and derivation. In the poems that work least well, the ones that read more like an explanation of a philosophical stance or an exploration of the idea of a text, Beer seems to work with a critic’s motives: It’s not that this poem is directly communicating my thoughts or experience; it’s that by writing this poem I am writing this poem, or that by writing this poem I am illuminating my take on another writer’s phrasing or subject matter.
Nonetheless, The Waste Land and Other Poems offers readers a refreshing liveliness and a literate perspicacity. What the narrating voice notices and understands is articulated confidently, with enthusiasm and plenty of local color. The poems continuously leverage the play between actor and script, referencing the theater, movies, and the act of making movies, as well as between narrative and abstract exclamation. The reader is invited into the poems by an appealing sense of discovery and surprise. Consider these opening lines:
There are many things in this world,
and one of them is you.
I love you: the first lesson
gunplay teaches. I find my breath
under the table, a tourniquet
not needed at the moment.
(“Trapped in the Closet”)
Taking on Eliot at his best, Beer gives muscle to a contemporary rendering of a seminal twentieth-century masterwork. Beyond its success, the attempt itself is an astonishing example of literary bravado. Beer energetically adds to the efforts of enlarging the territory that poetry inhabits. His interest in modernism, language, art, and criticism informs his poems. All subjects, including the notion of a subject, are welcome and sometimes turned inside out: life, love, perfume, “the smell of witch hazel indoors,” the dead, a red sweatsuit, truth, meals, fate:
Their music fell into my heart
like an unexpected taxi. So what
if you’re a god. You’re not immune to starving,
once the world decides your voice is innocent.
(“Sonnets to Morpheus”)
I set out to write a treatise on failure, and it turned out my subject was love. Call it my confusion. One catches oneself, inevitably, in the trap set for the speeding bird. What renders the rent net holy.
(“Theses on Failure”)
About the Reviewer
John Whalen is the author of In Honor of the Spigot (Gribble Press Chapbook Award, 2010) and Caliban (Lost Horse Press, 2002). He is an abstract painter working with acrylic on canvas and makes a living in computer security. His poems have appeared most recently in the Gettysburg Review, the Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, CutBank, Crab Creek Review, and Barrow Street.