Review by Ellaraine Lockie
SUMMER WITH ALL ITS CLOTHES OFF
by Art Beck
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San Francisco. CA 94116
Anything naked is hard to resist. Even with its dangling preposition, I'd want to read this book. For us poets, perhaps it's the association with truth stripped bare.
And that's what Art Beck does in this fourth collection of poems gleaned by Lynne Savitt, editor and friend, from poems dating back to the mid-seventies: He gives us a transparent look at nature's fluidity--at the seasons of life filtered from the sediment of affectation, and at the inevitable flow to death. Underlying these poems is the subtle suggestion that choices we make can age us as elegantly and deliciously as a fine red wine. Beck, it seems, is pure Chateau Latour, and this collection goes down just as smoothly.
Beck, also known for his translations, says that poetry "has always served as a way of opening me to myself." In so doing, he opens readers to the wisdom learned through a life lived consciously and to astute observations about the human condition. Here's what I mean, from Proverbs:
. . . Lovers are like that,
never two equal fires, but a match, a flint
--the spark something else entirely that
doesn't truly belong to either. Now we've discovered
we're only tilted into sex by a random
gene; how every woman carries a trapped, eternal
boy in her, every man, his lost wild sister.
… It's no surprise
we have to grow old before we get wise,
before we learn to distinguish
between nourishment and bait.
Most of Beck's poems here aren't about growing old, though. They're about growing up and deepening--in middle age. Usually it's women, seized by menopause, who bring this time of angst and illumination to paper. Now, a man pulls us under his skin with precision-perfect words and massaged line breaks, so that we see men's midlife journeys can be turbulent too. He asks, "What is it that's beginning to mourn, even in my deepest sleep? / What do I have to let go of to fly?"
And when we look into the mirror with Beck, we see that he weathers the stormy labyrinth with a stillness and grace that could only inspire those of us who are going through, have been through or have yet to go through such a period in our lives. For example, in To Annie from the Winter Coast, he writes:
Well, we're both old enough to know
these seasons pass. The zombies
take off their masks, are finally revealed
as long lost cousins. Frankenstein coos
like a dove, Dracula crumbles
into his cloak, sinks to the ground
and instead of a bat, hummingbirds
and friendly bees circle your
sun-specked bed. That's
what it means to be a veteran, the winter war
melting like slush.
You can begin to see the beauty in the way Beck pulls nature into his lyrics, entwines it as metaphor. He's talking about more than the weather in January, Chicago when he writes, "Even at the hollow core of winter; / Resonance. The wind within / answering the bitter chill with / its own dark, hungry tongue."
Also this, from Omens: ". . .while the last / of this year's yellow roses continue against all reason / to bloom and climb in the cherry tree's / rusting leaves. . . If I can just / hold on a bit longer. Perhaps. . ."
As if to round out the collection a bit, Savitt includes several poems more nostalgic and philosophical in content that may seem incongruous with the rest of the collection. Yet, reflections like these are often the offspring of epiphanies married to middle age. And Beck's poems in this vein are as evocative as his others. Take Nicotine, for instance:
. . . It's the nipple
we suck instead of fucking. And--when
life suddenly grins--the hot breath
we lick like spun sugar between
screws to savor our scent.
Every twelve year old who tears
the cellophane knows without
reading the warning: Cigarettes
are war, courage, luck. Tobacco,
like fine brown clay wrapped
in white elegance, reminds us
of our place and that flesh
is a candle. Reminds us that
fools have the right to insist
on striking the match themselves.
So light up a cigarette (if you smoke), pour a glass of good red wine and prop your feet on the coffee table with Beck’s book in hand, where "Summer with all its clothes off, meets you at the door / with a mouthful of licorice and roses."--from Cottage.
Ellaraine Lockie has been published in poetry magazines, journals, broadsheets and anthologies in the U. S. and internationally, and has received eight nominations for Pushcart prizes. Her four published chapbooks are: Midlife Muse, Poetry Forum (winner of their 2000 chapbook contest); Crossing the Center Line, Sweet Annie Press; Coloring Outside the Lines, The Plowman Press; and Finishing Lines, Snark Publishing. She also teaches school and community poetry workshops. She also writes nonfiction books, magazine articles/column and children’s stories. Her nonfiction books are All Because of a Button: Folklore, Fact and Fiction, St. Johann Press; The Gourmet Paper Maker, Creative Publishing, and The Low Lactose Kitchen Companion and Cookbook forthcoming in late 2005.