For the first few months of a job—maybe a year—you feel you have a great thing, until the boredom, the stagnation, the frustration, the repetitiveness sets in. You want out, but it is also your livelihood. You feel hinged between two places, and the powerlessness of it all, until you make that big decision to let it go.
Gary Beck’s collection, Songs of a Clerk (Winter Goose Publishing, 2014), hearkens back to those moments of job dissatisfaction I have experienced, yet in reading this collection, I travel back vicariously, enjoying the journey with Beck.
Beck’s dedication says it all:
“Boredom a disease
Action a cure
The only way to deal with boredom is to be active. You can decide to be active in your same boring career, or to be active outside of it; either way, find something new to challenge you. The speaker deals with his boredom by writing poems about his work environment. In over 100 poems, mostly small pieces of under a page, Beck explores the depressing life of a clerk.
Some poems are written in parts, and these are the ones that give depth to the collection. The “Greeley Square” poems, a four-part series, explore life around the eponymous square, mostly frequented by office workers on their lunch breaks and the pigeons that shit on the benches. The first section of the poem is written in the voice of the square itself, noting what passes through it in day, and how all–office workers, shoppers, pigeons, cars, trucks—erode it.
“The buses, cars, trucks
passioning the city
honk slumbering ears awake,
cloud your triangle of sootness
painting funerals of sad sitters.
The office exiles,
grey-suited and bitter,
have sagging mouths,
soiled tan raincoats.”
The feeling is elegiac, especially the line, “painting funerals of sad sitters,” and mirrors the putrefaction and waste experienced by Beck’s speaker, who is an office clerk exiled from his job.
“Greeley Square II” focuses on the lunch break, when it is occupied by office workers. Its tone is redolent of the resentment, decadence, and hopelessness of the other occupiers of the square—the black men, “pushing handcarts and resentment”; the Spanish men who “read jokebooks in the doorways”; the old men who “gather newspapers and empty bags, after the clerks return to work.” The square itself, at this time of day, is “dreary and severe.” All of the others’ resentment is directed at the office workers, perhaps because they poison the square with the dreariness and lack of appeal they carry into it from their jobs.
In “Greeley Square III,” the speaker, describes what he is seeing in this square during the lunch hour. He doesn’t tell us what he is feeling, only observing life in this square, so the tone is detached:
“The shower of soot
bathing the city
in tiny grey-black particles
falls on park sitters,
benched and silent,
watching the clock
until lunch hour is done.”
In the clock-watching, there is the sense that the square itself has imprisoned the clerk. He is “benched and silent,” “watching the clock,” and fulfilling a prison sentence of some sort, “until the lunch hour is done.” Maybe this clerk has become a hardened criminal who no longer attempts to show his feelings because his environment has stifled and trampled him. He just sits and waits for the clock that will, eventually, release him.
In “Greeley Square IV,” the speaker has once again come to the park to find respite from his dreary job. He fails to find it, as his co-workers find him there and impose on his refuge. He had come to the square to avoid anything that reminds him of his job, but the sight of his coworkers reminds him of the setting he had wanted so much to forget. In one of the hardest-hitting poems on life as a clerk, the speaker states:
“The dreariest of clerks
goes to lunch in a twenty dollar suit,
then sits in the sun in Greeley Square.
The shabby people line the benches,
victims of the city pigeons.
Weary and depressed,
he tries in vain to lose his office,
but fellow-workers find his refuge
and smash the hope of escape.”
Everything in this poem is colorless and depressing, from the twenty-dollar suit to the shabby people on the benches and the victimizing pigeons. Everything defeats the clerk. Even the woman who passes by, garbed in fashionable clothing, doesn’t see him. The theme of failed respite, happiness, and pleasure from the opposite sex recurs throughout the collection. Whether in the square or closer to home, women’s attention and regard is always unattainable to the clerk.
Each poem in Songs of a Clerk is written with a focus upon a certain aspect of the clerk’s job or life—for example, “The Boss,” “Casualty,” and “Leave of Absence.” The titles immediately reveal the topic, making the poems easy to comprehend and giving them the unmagical, overly literal feeling of an intra-office memo. Beck’s basic language makes the poems accessible. Proponents of the “accessibility above all” school will appreciate the spare quality of Beck’s language and imagery. Though there is nothing wrong with a critical, abstract poetic voice, the accessibility worked well with the issues of the common worker Beck sought to expose and whom he may ultimately have been targeting with his collection: the downtrodden office Everyman.
Because of the poems’ success at replicating the repetition and dreary environment of the clerk, the first reading left me impatient. Upon second reading, I appreciated some comical moments amid the gloom and drear, such as in “Vengeance”:
“On this dreary afternoon,
in the desert of imagination,
I summon Gengis [sic] Khan
and Tartar host.
See my power.
I command them.
Slaughter the boss,
the babbling secretaries,
cut out their tongues,
rape and pillage.
Don’t let that one escape,
the office idiot.
Some dire torture must be his.
Let him be crucified
by his protruding ears,
for awful jokes.”
Here, the clerk’s fantasies of obliterating the irritating and supercilious people who plague his work hours—that is to say, the longest and most draining hours of his day—show that he has yet some “fight” left in him. For all his castration under fluorescent lighting and beneath his “twenty-dollar suit,” Eros and Thanatos have not deserted him entirely, even if they surge only briefly. The fact of the collection’s existence is further proof that the speaker has some libido left in him.
But a moment later, even the speaker, who writes in his free time, is not satisfied. Even in the life of the imagination, the boredom and the depressing work environment seep in and ruin a sexual fantasy:
This evening she will come,
the dark-haired girl I adore.
I sit a Baron of power
dreaming her perfect,
but the drabness of my office day
smashes my vision
and leaves me at my desk,
a victim of my pencils.
In the middle of the book, there were times when the repetition was too much for me,and just as the speaker did in “Clerk’s Plea,” I prayed for release from “the tedious, soul sucking office.” The tone and atmosphere of the poems was quite uniform throughout the collection: a little foray into experimentation, stylistics, form bending, transporting us beyond the mundane worlds of these poems would have been a breath of fresh air—giving the reader what the speaker himself was seeking, but never quite finding, in Greeley Square.
For that matter, I wondered whether the job—the actual work as a clerk—was always boring and demeaning, whether it was wholly without some bit of pleasure or fun. I wondered whether there was ever any camaraderie of workers against bosses, crazy office jokes, flirting or affairs, or any other solidarity among fellow office workers. Surely, Beck might have focused on the beauty of these flowerings of will and personality amidst a sterile and generic backdrop. The fact that Songs of a Clerk raises this question is proof of its power as a collection of poems on this subject. It deserves to be read, not just once, and discussed: perhaps around the water cooler?
Tendai R. Mwanaka is a multidisciplinary artist from Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. His oeuvre spans nonfiction, essays, poetry, plays, fiction, music, sound art, photography, drawings, paintings, video, collage, mixed media, and intergenre and interdisciplinary work. He is the author of a poetry collection, Voices from Exile (Lapwing Publications, 2010); a novel composed of interlinked short fiction pieces, Keys in the River (Savant Books and Publications, 2012), and a book of creative nonfiction, The Blame Game, (Langaa RPCIG, 2013). His second full-length novel, Dark Energy, is forthcoming from Aignos Publishing Inc. Mwanaka’s work has been published in over 300 journals, anthologies, and magazines in over 27 countries.
Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director—and as an art dealer, when he couldn’t make a living in theater. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines; Beck is the author of 11 published chapbooks and a 12th in press. His poetry collections include: Days of Destruction (Skive Press), Expectations (Rogue Scholars Press), Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways (Winter Goose Publishing). Perceptions and Displays is forthcoming from Winter Goose Publishing. His novels include Extreme Change (Cogwheel Press), Acts of Defiance (Artema Press), and Flawed Connections, currently in press with Black Rose Writing. Beck has also published a short story collection, A Glimpse of Youth (Sweatshoppe Publications). His original plays and translations of Molière, Aristophanes, and Sophocles have been produced off Broadway. He currently lives in New York City.