Walter Beck is a throwback, but I mean that in the most complimentary way. Beck’s poetry is rooted in Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, classic (and obscure) metal, and all major punk icons–all of which are miles away from the lyric or even grittier realistic choices many of today’s queer poets make. Bisexual Beck speaks in a populist’s voice, calling to workers and the disenfranchised everywhere, and this is especially true of his last three chapbooks: Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues, Last Tent City Blues, and Red Ink Sludge.
Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues and Red Ink Sludge deal with Beck’s work experiences at a gas station/convenience store and on the disassembly line in an unnamed industrial setting, respectively. Last Tent City Blues is the odd man out in that the poems are largely about his time as a Boy Scout leader at Camp Krietenstein in Beck’s home state of Indiana. However, it is a reminder that duplicity, betrayal, and marginalization are not unique to the urban landscape and can occur in the most beautiful of settings.
Anyone who’s worked retail, especially for a convenience store, knows what a mindless, soul-crushing job it can be. Still, it has its humor, its ironies, moments in the day where you can let your head drift away, even momentarily–although those moments are hardly compensation for dealing with the public for eight to twelve hours a day. None of this is lost on Beck, who uses the arsenal at his disposal to digest the experience and turn it to art, as he does in Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues‘s “On Break”:
“That must be a good book,” the lady said to me./I was on my smoke break/And reading a little Kerouac/in the cool September evening./I told her,/”Ma’am, this is all I have right now at work/To feel human.”
Last Tent City Blues, the outlier here in terms of subject, is all of a piece with the rest of the trilogy in terms of voice. Beck’s heroes, markers, and points of reference are the same as he name-checks Bukowski (of course), Kerouac (naturally), Megadeth, and Motorhead. But rather than sounding “samey,” as it might, Beck has a real emotional investment in the wilderness and the spirit of the organization with which he’s involved that prevents Last Tent City Blues from sliding into self-parody. His love for the camp and its denizens is everywhere–from the respect and admiration of “The Wise Old Man” to the relief and longing of “I Finally Found My Home” to the betrayal of it all going horribly wrong in “When the Masks Melt Away” and “A Note from a Piss-Stained Latrine.” And his regret is palpable in “Suicide Option”:
Go quietly/Fold up the khaki colors/And go quietly into the night/Leave it all;/Leave nine years to rust/Like a beautiful half-remembered dream./Run quietly into the black,?Run from the cold machines/Who let money & numbers kill their souls./Fade into the shadows/Like they wanted to five years ago,/Let them deny you were ever there./Let the sniper’s silenced death/Cut you down;/Let him finish his long war.
Red Ink Sludge is a return to the nine-to-five world, but the difference between this and the first volume of the trilogy is that here we start to see Beck’s Socialist leanings. He also ups the desperation quotient so that this chapbook is less passive than Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues, and he is less inclined to sit back and let the experience wash over him (“What Normal People Buy,” “To a Warrior Sister,” “Break in the Cold”). Of course, being a subversive nail attracts the attention of a hammer, and Beck shows us just how hard that bad boy can hit–as in “Sickness”:
I’m sick from quitting and sick from firing,/Of being able to stand the ground on the picket line/But not being able to toe it on an assembly line,/Or a register line,/Or an order line./I’m sick of machinery,/Of clanging registers and horns,/I’m sick of the public./I’m sick from running,/From hiding,/From escaping,/I’m sick of escaping.
This final volume in the trilogy also hints at Beck’s successes on stage, his predilection for “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and other outlets, so it’s not depressive or consumed with hatred. It has the right balance.
Beck has these experiences nailed, and the confirmation is in these three chapbooks. His talent is without question, and I’m always anxious to find out what’s on his mind. If it’s revolution and anarchy, so be it. We could use a little of both.
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler