Beer+Lessons


The Wasteland and Other Poems
John Beer
Canarium Press, 2010
Review by Aaron Lowinger

The first lesson here is that lawyers are paid good money to construct language around an agreement or decision that lends itself to the least possible chance of misinterpretation because language has deep problems around this and not just in the case of bawdy innuendo or puns. Case in point, a fellow named John Beer writes a book called The Waste Land and Other Poems. The name John Beer for one, reads like a possible joke (anything's possible, right). Wikipedia turns around and tells me: John Bernard Beer, FBA (born 31 March 1926) is a literary critic. OK, this makes sense. A guy born 4 years after T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land in the country where this particular poem makes most sense. But the first poem of the Mr. Beer's book quickly dispels any notion of such "classical" tastes as a visual poem appears: a symmetrical arrangement of words drip and drop.

Back on the Internet, I find a Youtube video of a John Beer reading a poem in an art gallery in Chicago with a percussion accompaniment, bearded and not octogenarian. This is the guy. This kind of very contemporary hide-and-seek game is repeated in many small ways while reading these poems, and it's fun to be on the hunt. The poems, often feeling the influence of Ted Berrigan, also pass his litmus test of being "amusing" with flying greens and reds.

The second lesson is that it's possible to fuck around in an intellectually serious way, and that this kind of playfulness is fun to read. Did I say it was serious? There’s just so much stuff in the language used to describe poetry that I feel self-conscious using a word like serious when I’m trying to talk about how well Beer simultaneously pulls of this light-hearted, serious, and even necessary verse in long lines and big poems. Parts of this book remind me of emails between friends when we start by being playful until as part of a joke one of us makes a spreadsheet cataloging every romantic partner they've had and rates them on a relative scale of attractiveness. And after laughing the list off, one of the email recipients closes the door and riffs off narrative domains the spreadsheet has created, wherein each romantic partner becomes a kind living thing in something you could call a poem. All of this is important, even the inadequacy of adjectives.

Here's an extended look at a poem from the Beer's Wasteland:

Sam's problem was he would always compare himself
to other people. I told him, Sam, you don't need to be
a hero. But now I can see I was wrong. I wanted him
to be heroic, but not in that guerrilla-theater way.
I told him, Sam, it's time to take off the puppet head.
You could give him a little credit, though, for standing up
against corporate hegemony. He always buys his coffee
from locally owned establishments, and he shoplifts
all those books of poetry from Barnes and Noble.
Oh, everyone deserves a little credit. All the angry
little men in angry little rooms can write
their diagnoses, xerox their zines, and dream
that someday they'll become the next Debord.
In the meantime, how am I supposed to live?
None of us is getting any younger. Power clutches
THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS.
WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.
everyone with a velvet embrace. But isn't
a life deformed by constant struggle a life
as much defined by power's rule as one
in which you carve a space out for yourself?
I want to find my happiness on my own terms.
That's what we all want—isn't it?  At least,
THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS.
WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.
thank God, we live in a day and age
where people aren't afraid to talk about orgasms.
Speaking of which, you've got to go see
the Orphee that just opened at Performers' Collective.
All the actors have been in car crashes,
and they've added an orgy—it's a little derivative,
but what isn't, these days?  OK, got to run,
ciao, I'll see you later, love to all.
THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS.
WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.

If I was writing for my local paper, I might call this an imaginative tour de force, or call Beer an "intellect on overdrive." It’s not easy to find the words in such cases, but how refreshing is it that I believe John Beer is conscious of this in the writing of these poems? I arrived at this after reading the notes at the end of the book in which Beer writes, "Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the book were suggested by the Philosophical Investigations. Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Wittgenstein's book will elucidate the difficulties much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the work itself) to any who think such lucidation of my book worth the trouble." It's not that the Wittgenstein angle is anything new to poetry, but I love that Beer acknowledges its influence on his approach to language. The words (nouns seem most apt for sake of illustration) are placeholders for content which get filled in quite arbitrarily; they could easily point towards meaning elsewhere or in a different way altogether. This isn't a discipline of interest in poetry alone: Wittgenstein is one of the few "continentals" whose work is also taken seriously by linguists and cognitive scientists in the realms of semantics and discourse pragmatics. That is to say, John Beer's poems are thoughtful, engaging, and energetic. Get it? I'm not sure either . . . But in the scatter-brained construction of Beer's lines is where I think this makes most sense. The subject and action is always changing, it's like eating at a revolving fusion restaurant high above the city of American English, and there's just so much to eat!

I'm sitting in a café listening to overhearing a long-tenured Buffalo English professor talk to who I imagine to be a graduate student about modernism, architecture, and social class identity. Ezra Pound just turned 125 years old. Rethinking modernism through this book, which pulses with an ethic and honesty only the swirling wind and long cold the American Midwest can produce, is a whirling and engaging affair.

The third lesson is that John Beer is going right up the ladder of modernism's greatest hero and not pausing for a second's worth of hagiography. The poems sieve through endless pop culture and music references in and out, cosmetics tycoons, police department ballads, late night beer-fed long poems that could fit a wide array of potential performance venues. He could hold his own among slam poets and make academics comfortably uncomfortable, aka "piqued," make beatniks feel like they've totally missed the boat, and put a hard hat on next to Bill Murray. This is poetry that makes reading and writing poetry fun again.

Click here to listen to Beer read at Pilot Books. Beer will be reading from his work at Court Street Gallery (417 Hancock St., Saginaw) on January 21, 2011 as part of Poetry Event.

Aaron Lowinger is the author of several poetry chapbooks, including Open Night (Transmission Press) and Guide to Weeds(House Press). His writing is also featured online at Blazevox.org (Spring 2010 Buffalo Focus) and Whiteprintinc.com. He lives in his hometown of Buffalo, NY with his family and co-curates the poetry and performance series "Big Night."

© Aaron Lowinger, 2010