Yet what Beer is aiming to accomplish seems more consciously intentional. Even the cover of Beer's book looks maddeningly similar to Eliot's 1923 Hogarth edition, with its equivalent colour scheme and typographical rendering. The first edition of Eliot's book was hand printed by his friends Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and in 1923 Virginia wrote to her friend Barbara Bengal: "I have just finished setting up the whole of Mr. Eliot's poem with my own hands: You see how my hand trembles."
All the actors have been in car crashes,
and they’ve added an orgy—it’s a little derivative,
but what isn’t, these days? OK, got to run,
ciao, I’ll see you later, love to all.
The poet is writing of his own experiment, quickly parsing in and out of poetic actions and observations. And with an obvious nod to Eliot, must of course update the famous line (which was an update itself of Chaucer) and inject a hipsteresque aura to its tone: “April is the coolest month, which brings happy policemen the pleasant dreams of spring.” It is Beer taking a swing at Eliot, taking a swing at Chaucer.
Yet, ultimately Beer’s poem belongs to Beer, and he has attired it with contemporary flourishes so that it gives off a slight, albeit recognizable, whiff of the post-modern. The references to the twentieth and Twenty-first Century are there: oblique mentionings of “the early Pixies,” “the discount bin of the Princeton Record Exchange,” the “bodegas, taquerias, vintage stores.” The narrator is a flâneur, an urban man, an iconoclast. He stitches together—Flarf style—lyrics from pop songs, phrases from Eliot, and Chicago street names into a lyrical treatise which suggests the superficiality of contemporary poetry while upholding a style similar to a pensive, mid-century, quasi-narrative poet.
This isn't to suggest that Beer is a predictable poet. Even though allusions to his predecessors run amok, his own informed and somewhat quirky voice streaks through the entire collection, especially in poems like “Flowers,” “J. Beer 1969-1969” and the prose series “Theses on Failure” which begins with this ardent opening declaration: “1. I wanted to announce the chief defect of red.” Beer’s preoccupation with colour, throughout the book, echoes the synaesthesia of another one of Beer’s precursors, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The experience of meaning as it is attached to colours lends itself to more of a conceptual-related discussion, as does Wittgenstein’s. The title of the poem, “Theses on Failure,” could intimate that the colour red is synonymous or at least conceptually related to failure, which Beer later on in the poem connects with the love: “I set out to write a treatise on failure, and it turned out my subject was love.”
But that seems too straightforward for the author’s circuitous faculties. Red here could also act as synecdoche for Communism or Karl Marx, as some of the quotes included in the poem are from Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (Feuerbach, incidentally, features prominently in Beer’s poem, sometimes in a dream, sometimes eating pasta). Much in this poem remains intangible yet glorious: the slap-dash array of characters, including Charles Bernstein, who has a cameo appearance “framed by “shark-jaws”, the winks to Marx and the Young Hegelians, and most notably, Beer’s masterly forms of badinage—sentences such as “I walked from Leningrad to Prague for you, under one arm a ladder, under the other a taxonomy of vegetables” or “You told me that I couldn’t translate “Das Wesen des Christenthums” as “Christian Thumbways.” You said it was too dumb.” As in most successful poetry, everything in "Theses on Failure" needs to be chewed a bit, absorbed. And what colour accomplishes in this poem and in other poems such as “Mary, Color Scientist” is that it creates an aura that persists amidst Beer’s heady and often stunningly clever philosophical explorations. The subject of the poem is dubious, perhaps there is no subject at all; colour and language in themselves being conclusive ways of experiencing the world.
Kent Johnson has written of Beer and his poetry: “There is in John Beer, as I have known since our days in London, a bit of the last younger American poet living the tragedy of Europe. Thus, I was pleased when he sent me the manuscript of The Waste Land and Other Poems (originally titled He Do the Police in Different Voices), asking for my editorial suggestions.” This sounds like it was written in 1920 on York Way on a drizzly afternoon. American poets will always tend to speak in their poems, knowingly or not, of this "tragedy of Europe" but never as soundly as European poets themselves. Thus Beer has taken it upon himself to translate the tragedy into an updated American idiom.
Eliot was constantly accused of pilfering lines from other writers. With Beer, it’s not a discussion about plagiarism, as it was in Eliot’s time. Collage, quotation, pastiche, erasure, Flarf are all widely accepted in today’s literary world. Beer’s collection, as homage to such now-institutionalized techniques, exposes a writer who is deeply steeped in poetic history; his modernism does not stem from making something new, but in challenging the form in such a way that the past looks postmodern. This can even be seen as early on as in the dedication, phonetically copying and at the same time updating Eliot's il miglior fabbro ("the better craftsman," dedicated to Pound). Beer writes: "for Jack Spicer--the fabber craftsman". Significant here is the rare word "fabber," which is in fact a small machine capable of making three-dimensional copies of almost anything, simply from digital data.
The shadows of Beer’s predecessors—Eliot, Wittgenstein, Spicer—tint the way the reader experiences the poem, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. This looking back, Orpheus-style, is a theme that recurs throughout The Waste Land and Other Poems (Beer). In the fifth section of "The Waste Land”—a prose section called “Death to Poetry”—Orpheus is the subject of the poem:
Orpheus awoke in the poem of disguises, the poem once
called “The Waste Land.” Friends, listen up. He gathered the
remnants of the life he had dreamed. He renounced the burden
of the name he bore. He began to walk.
Orpheus proceeds to walk through Chicago, down Milwaukee Avenue, towards the Flatiron Building. He meets a hustler with a beer can and some anarchist kids. He “walked past the cabdrivers trading insults in Urdu, and he walked past convenience stores…And the sky was the color of eggplant and tire fires, the sky was the field that resisted exhaustion.” It sounds like pure cinematic sheen. It could be the backdrop of an opera, the new cacophony which is America. It is Orpheus, but it is also the author, walking us through the Midwest: his cities, his puddles and gutters. Beer shows us what it is like to walk through his world. But it won’t be the same for us when we walk through it, nor when we read the poem. Nothing is the same way twice. As Beer writes in the second section of the title poem, called “Don’t Look Back:”
…No song can bear
the weight we need to place upon it;
nothing returns as we ask it to return.