Apr 13 2022
Poetry review – CENTRAL AIR: Neil Elder commends the wide appeal of George Bilgere’s poetry
Central Air George Bilgere Pitt Poetry Series, University of Pittsburgh Press, ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6689-0 $18
Life is confusing and complex, we know that, but if we want proof then the fact that George Bilgere is hardly known in the UK provides it, as does his latest collection Central Air. In America, Bilgere is widely published and revered, winner of a Pushcart Prize and a regular in many of the best journals. Exactly how his work has not carried across the Atlantic is baffling, given the fact that his themes and concerns are universal, and his poetry sings with clarity.
Central Air, Bilgere’s eighth collection, makes use of contemporary touchstones to explore enduring ideas. There is nothing flashy or clever-clever about Bilgere’s work, though there is little doubt he could do all the bells and whistles of so much contemporary poetry if he chose to. Adrian Mitchell said “’Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. Too often I think that line is true – but not in this case. Bilgere’s writing rewards upon first reading, such is its accessibility, but it continues to reward because the poems are so layered, and their straightforwardness is really a sleight of hand.
‘Reichstag’ is a poem that serves as an example of Bilgere’s ‘now you see it’ skill; the speaker of the poem and his son are outside the building “which is burning / and coalescing with rich and complicated / history”, except the small boy is “not even looking at the damn thing”. Instead the boy is taken by the sight of an insect, a firebug. The speaker acknowledges the bug, and then considers how his son’s interest in beetles will soon pass –
And I know that the Firebug Era will soon come to an end, to be replaced by the Getting Stoned and Drunk and Calling Me From Jail Era, to be followed by The Buying His First Condom Era Which in time will lead to the Moving Into His Own Place Era which I fear Because my Ice Age is not that far off And I will not roam the Earth much longer
By the end of the poem the insect is inscribed with “ancient and inscrutable hieroglyphics“ and the Reichstag is “some old building”. In the course of the poem time has been collapsed, language and its means of veneration has been switched, and the speaker of the poem is drawing our attention to the question of what really matters – history or the present?
The speaker of many of these poems, the persona adopted, speaks to us in conversational tones, draws us in, and we often find ourselves agreeing with the uncomfortable truths he draws attention to. We may like to think we have a great insight into the world around us, that we have sophisticated thoughts and are sensitive, but Bilgere knows that beneath those fine sentiments the selfish gene, or just the pragmatic side of life, is so often the real engine. In ‘Bee’ the speaker sits at a table where a dead bee rests; he pays homage to the beekeper “priestly in his vestments”, recognises the work and wonder of the creature, thinks of the “Hollyhocks and honeysuckle” with admirable feeling, before “I brush him to the sidewalk / with the leaves and butts.” What else can he do? Life gets in the way of the poetic, as it does in ‘Surveilled’ where, with great bathos, ruminations on “a new kind of loneliness” are interrupted, “but here’s my car.”
Bathos is certainly a hallmark of this collection (and of all Bilgere’s collections, in fact). Humour is a feature, undoubtedly, even hilarity in parts (‘Polar Bear’ is a hoot). However there is also a sense of alienation that touches the speaker, this Everyman/Regular Joe kind of guy. The awareness that time is passing crops up time and again in the poems; and does so to grotesque and comic effect in ‘No Problem’;
I sit here ageing at the street side cafe giving off the sickly yellow smoke of decay
It also appears in more subtle ways, such as when the teacher realises that tastes and fashions and the diktats of woke thinking are taking hold and he can no longer expect students to react in the same way as he might to a poem being studied. In this case Jack Gilbert’s poem ‘In Umbria’ evokes “Wow that guy seems like kind of a perv,” from a student, and Bilgere accepts he must put the poem aside for good,
But time Hath caught up with me, as it doth All men, and I do not wish to seem Like kind of a perv.
Of course even here, the language is pinpoint – the juxtaposition of the student voice and the mock heroic creates its own humour and serves to emphasise the disjunction.
The world is changing, and Bilgere is conscious that the changes are bigger than his own story. In ‘Morning, Berlin’ the waitress who speaks in “bad German” and has “skin like butterscotch” has arrived or, escaped, from Kabul (“Merkel let her in”). In ‘For the Slip ‘n Slide’ – a hymn to childhood innocence, and summers spent playing with black children from a neighbouring family – Bilgere suggests America is “a country growing stranger / less recognizable, more lonely every day.” The darkness is present in ‘Stolpersteine’ when, standing in Berlin and reflecting on the rise of fascism, Bilgere describes how “back home the language is heating up / the elected leader is shouting to the crowds … giving voice to something locked up in them so long”.
Indeed, for all the lightness of touch and the nods of joyful recognition that the poems provide a reader, there are some heavyweight poems that pull you up. ‘Misasa Bridge’ uses a hauntingly naive narrative voice to devastating effect, producing an entirely original portrayal of Hiroshima. Meanwhile Bilgere’s poem ‘Chernobyl’ has, sadly, taken on an extra dimension as one reads it in 2022. When written, the poem was commemorating the nuclear leak, examining a place frozen in time
But today in Chernobyl the clocks have given up. Nobody monitors the phones, and every night the movie theater shows the same old silent film.
Now the poem is painful in its unwitting irony –
I wish I were in Chernobyl today. The streets are peaceful there. No cars or bicycles rush by, no one is late for work. There are no children laughing on the playground or getting into trouble.
Here is proof indeed that the world is a complicated place, and that nothing stands still forever. For Bilgere the complexity comes in all kinds of ways, from trying to cope with one’s own sense of mortality, or, as in ‘Mars’, it might be wrestling with the question of “who the hell/ would actually pay for, much less drink, / a Coors Light?”
In the closing poem of the collection, ‘Ripeness’, Bilgere takes stock and acknowledges his good fortune. And I too acknowledge good fortune in being able to attention to this poet from across the sea. Bilgere asks
… How many wrong turns and lucky breaks did it take to sit me down on this lawn chair on the twilight rim of the world?
I can’t answer the questions, but those turns and breaks meant Central Air came my way, and for that I am thankful. The title poem describes a couple who are removed from the world around them, almost hermetically sealed in their air conditioned home;
we see them in their living room, Lit by their giant TV, empty Nesters, long retired, maintained At a constant thermostatically Controlled sixty-five degrees.
A nice life for some, but not Bilgere who wants to remain in the world, connected to “insect/ ecstasies beyond our dreams”. It is this passion for life and the way these poems embrace life’s complexities that mean this collection ignores nobody and should be read by all.
Neil Elder has won the Cinnamon Press debut collection prize with The Space Between Us,as well as their pamphlet prize with Codes of Conduct which was also shortlisted for a Saboteur Award. His latest work is Like This, available from 4 Word Press. He occasionally writes at https://neilelderpoetry.wordpress.com/