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Holiday 2014 - BOOK REVIEW by Charles Rammelkamp

by George Bilgere
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$ 15.95, 72 pages
ISBN: 978-0822962687

In her backcover blurb, poet Dorrianne Laux succinctly nails George Bilgere's new collection (in fact, pretty much all of his poetry), when she writes, "Tracing the arc of the Baby Boomer generation from cradle to grave, Bilgere's poems paint a picture of American life that is equal parts sadness, matter-of-factness and hilarity... they tackle subjects such as aging, suburban routine, and the rise and subsequent fall of post-WWII America." Bilgere's poems are full of nostalgia and regret, but without a scintilla of self–pity or self–delusion. All experiences in life are fleeting, full of a mix of emotions, from triumph to shame, exultation to repentance, valuable even as they may be ultimately without any real significance.

In "Attic Shapes," a poem in which he is explaining to his wife (but really asking himself) why he bothers to hold onto the three cardboard boxes full of his dissertation notes, notes he knows he will never consult again, he likens these to other relics of the past, bound for the attic, his boxes of LPs, symbols of yet another period in his life ("my rebel period/of complicated post-adolescent unhappiness"); Bilgere observes that they represent a time "too terrible with loneliness and mystical confusion,/either to hear again or ever throw away." Closely observed, like amoeba under a microscope that blossom into dinosaurs, the ordinary experiences in an average lifetime represent so much more than their simple everydayness.

Take this reflection from "Journal," a poem lamenting the slow relentlessness of aging, when he remembers a time he rented a golf cart, at age 58, noting it in his journal, "recognizing the enormity of this, the sorrow,/the hugeness of the moment in all its beautiful ordinariness/as it leaned so temporally/so irrecoverably against the void." This is at once elegiac and comic; he is talking about renting a golf cart, after all!

The poignant, irreversible relentlessness that aging is to the middleaged–about–to-become–elderly is a theme that gets a lot of play in these poems. In the poem called "Jane," about a woman on the speaker's street who is lugging big black trash bags to the curb in preparation to selling her house and moving to an assisted living facility (full of dissertation notes and 12-inch vinyl records?), he concludes,

What Jane is doing — growing old,
taking out her ominous black trash bags
to vanish terribly in the snow, getting ready
for someone to drive her to a facility —
that may be her idea of the future (which I totally respect),
but it certainly isn't mine.

The irony hurts, but we laugh. As if we have a choice! "Prostate Exam" and "Basal Cell" are two other poems that put the spotlight on aging and the frailties of he body. In the latter, the speaker is remembering those glorious sun-soaked summers of his youth with "Cindy" and "Bev" and "John," just as " ...the nurse puts my cheek to sleep,/and the doctor begins to burn/those summers away." "Fly Balls" evokes yet another touching, distressing aspect of middle-aged adulthood, as the speaker prepares to meet with a mortgage consultant, comparing this to the carefreeness of shagging fly balls with his buddies, as a boy. (I well remember sitting down with my own financial consultant for the first time, on the very evening that my daughter was going to a Rolling Stones concert, the rebellious icons of my youth.)

Other poems, such as "Musial," an elegy to the great St. Louis Cardinals baseball player, and "Traverse City," in which the speaker remembers the family summer vacations of his youth, dredge up other humble occasions of youth and elevate them to mythic significance.

To sum this theme up, in the poem, "Indistinct Banquet," in which the speaker is at a formal meal to honor somebody or other for some vague sort of achievement or other, making small talk with the strangers with whom he is sitting, he writes:

and I think, this kind of thing is really
what life almost entirely consists of:
chicken and a dry dinner roll
at a kind of indistinct banquet,
or series of banquets, in other people's honor,
a lot of information about some stranger's daughter,

then the drive home late at night, parking the car
in its place in the driveway and sitting there
for a minute or two under the stars
with my own thoughts. Such as: I'm getting old.

There are certainly temptations that come with middle age as well, immortal though we may feel. The poem called "Desire" takes a hilarious view of this, as the speaker sees his life pass before his eyes on the sharp pang of lust that seizes him at the grocery store.

The slim, suntanned legs
of the woman in front of me in the checkout line
fill me with yearning
to provide her with health insurance
and a sporty little car with personalized plates.

The way her dark hair
falls to her narrow waist
makes me ache
to pay for a washer-dryer combo
and yearly ski trips to Aspen, not to mention
her weekly visits to the spa
and nail salon.

And the delicate rise of her breasts
under her thin blouse
kindles my desire
to buy her a blue minivan with a car seat
and soon another car seat, and eventually
piano lessons and braces
for two teenage girls who will hate me.

Finally, her full, pouting lips
make me long to take out a second mortgage
in order to send both kids to college
at first- or second–tier institutions,
then cover their wedding expenses
and help out financially with the grandchildren
as generously as possible before I die
and leave them everything.

The settings for Bilgere's poems are always ordinary, domestic, suburban scenes — the grocery, the home, in the laundry, the classroom, in a restaurant, an airport, a museum, a commercial district. Familiar, unthreatening places, reminiscent of John Updike's fiction. To be sure, there's the occasional stroll through Amsterdam's red light district ("The Prostitutes of Amsterdam"), but even there, the sad prostitute he encounters "On the other side of the full-length window ...sitting in what looked like her kitchen," reminds him of his mother.
Politics are absent from Bilgere's verse, at least in any overt, polemical way. Indeed, funnily enough, even in "Far from Afghanistan," a poem about the drone operators who launch lethal explosive devices in Pakistan and elsewhere, the anonymous drone operator in the poem stops at Piggly Wiggly in Florida on his way home after work to pick up some pork chops for the barbeque.

Bilgere's poems are humorous, fresh, sometimes sad or insightful, but always poems you admire and wish you could say you had written yourself.


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