Conditioned Response by Gary Beck
Pub: Nazar Look ISBN 9781517260934
Before I read this collection I was intrigued by the title Conditioned Response with its suggestions of manipulation and control over outcomes via a dispassionate programming of reactions to a given situation. The poems themselves spell out the implications of this, presenting a people ‘who have been conditioned/to the tao of acquisition’ (Misguided Education) and who barely notice the death ‘of one more soldier’ reported (if at all) by a media where ‘control of the viewers’ is ‘the ultimate prize’. (Gutenberg Weeps).
The cover and layout of the book is eye-catching – stark and clear in black and white. This suits a theme where outcomes match expectations, where responses are always the same with no opportunity for intervention or appeal. At the same time the ‘look’ of the book strikes me as deliberately ironic since nothing in the confused and suffering world shown here is clear-cut or black and white – the ordinary people who inhabit these pages are bewildered, apprehensive, waiting to be told how to think and how to act, over-burdened by the ‘demanding tasks’ that confront them, whether they be about ‘earning a livelihood,/suicide bombing,/educating children, ethnic cleansing’ (Detached Vision). It is all one and the same.
It is certainly a grim and negative world that Gary Beck presents where the whole tone of the collection is highlighted by his choice of vocabulary. There is an emphasis on words such as frugal, fear, pollution, trauma, intolerance, waste, grime and disease. Even the sun has ‘cancerous intent’ (Perilous Nudity) as it shines on a country where corruption is rife, where, in the sphere of politics, ‘yesterday’s enemy/is tomorrow’s friend’ (Statecraft), where drug dealers and users ‘erode the fabric / that sustains reality’ (Irony) and where a ‘shared environment’ is ravaged and diminished by ‘rampant consumption’ (Overdose). ‘From sea to tainted sea’, says the poet, ‘we deplete tomorrow/with chemicals,/biologicals/poisoning the earth.’ (Indictment)
One of the strongest poems in Conditioned Response, in my opinion, is Brief Freedom where the ‘message’ is conveyed through narrative and the plight of refugees and migrants is told through the sad tale of the caged pet house finch, ‘Mr. Fuzzy pate’, who continually sings ‘doleful songs’ until one spring day he hears and copies some nearby wild finches by bursting ‘into joyous song’. The tender-hearted daughter of the house, affected by the bird’s situation, releases him into freedom. However, his attempts to join others of his species are rebuffed. He is ‘pecked and pecked’ as an ‘unwelcome intruder’, chased away into the ‘long, cold night’ which he does not survive.
Gary Beck excels in writing poems that confront contemporary political and social issues. His language is clear, precise, tough and hard-hitting with a focus on direct and frequently monosyllabic verbs. An example of this is in Faces of Fear where worried families ‘wait, sit, twitch, pace, fret’. Similarly, in Feeding Cycle, hungry blue jays ‘puff up their feathers’ as they demand cashews and ‘shake,/cry, caw, yell.’
‘Could my pessimism be wrong?’ asks the author in the title poem Conditioned Response. ‘I hope so’, he adds, as he wonders ‘Have we lost the will/to compel change/from a disastrous course/that will lead to our undoing?’
This is an important collection, profound and urgent, demanding to be read and acted upon.