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Bewildering Stories

Gary Beck, Virtual Living

reviewed by Alison McBain

Virtual Living
Author: Gary Beck
Publisher: Thurston Howl Publications
Date: June 10, 2017
Length: 116 pages
ISBN: 1945247134; 9781945247132

I continue to return to Gary Beck’s poetry because I find the work enjoyable for many reasons. One, I like his style: the poems are up-front in their imagery and clear to follow. Even the more experimental works verge very close to realism.

Two, the sense of humor. In even the darkest of collections, there will be rays of comedy — granted, sometimes dark comedy — but humor nonetheless.

Three, the poems have a purpose. The mission of the works is both for information and a call to arms. While sometimes the poetry delves directly into morose musings about the negative outcomes of man’s dance with destruction, I think at the same time the purpose is to show the worst aspects of humanity in order to provoke a reaction to preserve what can be saved. Humanity is both horrid and amazing, both hated and loved, both admirable for its powers of creation and despicable for its powers of destruction.

Virtual Living carries on the tradition of Mr. Beck’s poetic mission with an eclectic combination of commentary on humanity, nature and the connection between the two. The purpose of the collection, linked to the title, is explained in the introduction: “The only way to sustain poetry in the Information Age and maintain its relevance is to make it meaningful to audiences conditioned to the Internet, iPod, Blackberry and text messaging.” Art in its many forms, including poetry, must adapt to the technology that is a part of our lives.

That is the theme of many of the poems in the collection: the examination of technology and how it fits into the natural and manmade world. Some common sub-themes in the work include man’s relationship to nature, and how man has become removed from natural impulses; how warfare has become distant, conducted through drones and buttons; how human relationships have been filtered through the online sphere, so face-to-face interactions have diminished greatly; how the ease of the Internet has subsumed individualism under capitalism; how technology actually traps those who rely on it by making them unable to function in the real world; the predatory nature of faceless, online interactions; and the problem of artificial worlds overcoming reality.

Aside from the electronics-driven poetry, there are a few stand-alone poems that focus more on social and political events than on how technology has an impact on people and nature. For example, Mr. Beck returns to several popular themes familiar to his readers, namely that the rich get richer, crime runs rampant due to a relaxation of stringent standards, and the short-sightedness of politicians.

Some poems are in multiple parts, such as “Gaming,” “Sports Fans,” and “Future War,” all of which have five to six parts spaced throughout the collection. Probably deliberately, most of the poems in this collection are one page or less, with short lines, a modern-style “sound bite” type of poetry.

Several of the titles are tongue-in-cheek puns, such as “Withdrawal Symptoms.” The poem focuses on a woman’s withdrawal from the world, in which her only communication — her job, shopping, relationships — are all conducted online.

But considering the weather catastrophes facing our neck of the woods recently, I will lead off with a prophetic poem entitled “Globalization”:

Cities expand
across the globe
devouring the land,
covering the earth
with strangling concrete,
training the people
in urban existence
to become alike
in wealth or poverty,
as the rich flourish,
the poor suffer,
both increasingly unfit
to survive nature’s extremes.

With the historic natural disasters that have befallen many regions recently, I think that this poem accomplishes the poet’s mission to highlight the dissonance between man and nature. How the battle between two opposing forces has left both the poorer for it; man destroys nature and nature destroys man, and the unending cycle leaves no winners in the end.

Most of the poems focus on the negative impact of technology and man-made creations. Several poems deal with the evils of online gaming, both for money and for entertainment. For example, the first poem in a six-part series, entitled “Gaming”:

Video gamers
urgent to compete,
to challenges
of the real world,
strive to win
artificial acclaim
on safe screens.

While I agree that gambling is a serious problem for those who are addicted to it and can lead to disastrous consequences, I’m not convinced by the argument that reliance on technology for entertainment leads to mental and physical stagnation in other areas. For some people, yes. If one never steps outside of a city or their own apartment and is suddenly transported to the countryside, it would be difficult to know instantly how to run a farm. But I don’t believe the city-country disconnect is a new development that has been created by the advent of iPods. Cities existed long before modern technology, and the distance between farmers and city dwellers has a history that long predates the Internet.

However, not all the poems reflect on the negativity of technological advancement. There are a few glimmers of hope with new gadgets, and they include using technology and social media as a tool to accomplish change in the real world. For example, there are several poems where protests by the everyday people to overthrow tyrannical dictators are accomplished only through spreading word on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

There are poems where strangers meet online and help each other through difficult situations, or fall in love virtually, leading to real-life relationships. The warning seems to be that these are the exceptions, not the rule; that the fallacies of human nature might subsume its more generous impulses. Regardless, these exceptions still exist and are still spreading good throughout the world.

I’ll end this review with a positive note, much needed nowadays, especially in this world fraught with political, social and natural turmoil. This poem of Mr. Beck’s is entitled “Electronic Egypt”:

Years of oppression,
civil rights abuses,
endemic poverty,
finally boiled over
as the disenfranchised
rushed to cellphones,
roused their neighbors
in peaceful protest
that grew and grew
the more violence
they confronted,
as social networking
toppled a government
of obsolete leaders.

I enjoyed reading Mr. Beck’s new collection of poetry, and I hope you will, also.

Copyright © 2017 by Alison McBain

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