Review by Arthur McMaster
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
Perfect Bound, 72 pages
If the purpose of poetry is to inform, while it also tantalizes and delights the critical reader, recognizing that this argument has no agreed assumptions or boundaries whatsoever, George Bilgere’s Imperial succeeds on each and every count. More so, his wise and witty poems seem well up to taking on even such intractable aches and human ailments as bum marriages, aging, the banality of drone warfare, Warren Harding, and having too much scotch whiskey in the house.
If this strikes you as a rather unruly and untidy menu, I would only say: “You Asked For It.” Because that is just what poetry readers do, you know, they want poems to entertain even while they confound. Make you think. Not surprisingly, and I suspect you see the clever foreshadowing here, this brings me to the first of many of GB’s poems that I want to share with you. As do so many of his poems, this one touches with unexpected gentleness on loss. Everyone gets the meaning of loss. Right?
In the poem “You Asked For It,” we find the world’s greatest slingshot expert. He has demonstrated his unusual skill on television. Why? Well, because we asked for it. But what befalls yesterday’s sharpshooter eventually befalls everyone. Let’s look in on the final stanza:
And I think of him now, perhaps long dead,
or frail and gray, his gift forgotten.
Just another old guy on a park bench
in Fort Lauderdale, fretting about Medicare,
grateful for the sun on his back, his slingshot
useless in this new world.
Sad. Or is this not your cup of marbles? Okay, so maybe you like jazz. I do. Billy Collins certainly does, and George Bilgere’s poems can often be surprisingly Billy-like. But not everyone likes jazz. Not for nothing, but Langston Hughes told the world that jazz rhythm informed his poetry. “Jazz” is my favorite poem of so many outstanding, highly narrative poems in this, Bilgere’s sixth volume. Can I tempt you with a sampling from each of his three stanzas?
… I was nodding my head in affirmation,
and I did feel rather hip, being one of the few white people there,
and then the set was over and I finished my beer
and walked out under the stars, suddenly hungry.
Work with me now. We are going to get a bite at a taco joint. But on the way we’ve got a radio program on in the car about how dolphins have this excellent healing power. They are like angels. They love us. Dolphins could be worrying about me (okay, you) right now. The poem continues in the final stanza:
I hoped they would give me credit for sitting in the jazz club,
struggling with difficult music and the challenges of the avant-garde,
and also, in a small way, doing my part to break down racial barriers.
[Hey, these are some high-minded creatures, the good Bilgere opines, and would never penalize a fella for occasionally being less than noble. ]
Even dolphins must have their equivalent
of eating tacos alone in a midnight parking lot,
although I can’t imagine what that might be.
I was admittedly delighted by the whole mise-en-scène. Pardon my French. Now, whether or not you like jazz and tacos, or you like one, or neither, you must admit this is a thought to hang on to. And is every bit as delightful and gently informative as the poem “Whales.” Which is about whales. But you will have guessed that. Let’s eavesdrop:
Every year they come to Monterey Bay
the great plankton eaters
with their mouths full of baleen, whatever
that may be. The lives of whales,
vast, unseen, unfathomable,
go on out there under the expensive yachts
as I chat on my cell phone, walking along the shore.
All this ruminating on the shore will cause the poet to think of a woman, back in Cleveland, where it is snowing big-time, but he knows she would rather be all warm with him [the dramatis personae], getting it on. Instead, she is reading Middlemarch. And if you want to know how it all works out, and how the unnamed whales make an unexpected return in the final lines, you will just have to buy the book. What’s more, you’ll get to read George’s poem on “Lint,” and on “Robert Frost,” and his poem on “Hoses,” and tooting his own horn one on “Tenure,” which I could use some of, and on “Walking the Dog,” which is a chore I would frankly less rather do than read Middlemarch again. Actually, I won’t have to. We creative writing English profs have to draw the line somewhere, you know.
Arthur McMaster’s poems have appeared in such journals as Poetry East, North American Review, Rattle, Rhino, and Subtropics, with one Pushcart nomination. He has two published chapbooks, the first having been selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission’s Poetry Initiative. His memoir is titled Need to Know. Find his author page at arthurmcmaster.com.