London Grip Poetry Review – George Bilgere



Poetry review – CHEAP MOTELS OF MY YOUTH: Charles Rammelkamp warmly welcomes a new collection by George Bilgere


Cheap Motels of My Youth
George Bilgere
Rattle, 2024
ISBN: 978-1-931307-56-7 
40 pages    $9.00

George Bilgere’s poems are always poignant and funny, clever and intelligent. He writes movingly about age and time, just as the title poem signals: the cheap motels belonged to his youth. Indeed,

             They lay somewhere between 
             the Sleeping In The Car era
             and my current and probably final era,
             the Best Western or Courtyard Marriott era.

It’s a poem about interviewing for an entry level teaching position, the unlikely chances of even getting an offer at a less than optimal college in the middle of nowhere, that would still be a prize for a young man just starting out. ‘Chance of getting the job / one in a hundred.’ But he checks into the cheap motel anyway for the interview next day, where he discovers ‘Lipsticked

            cigarette butt under the bed.
            Toilet seat with its paper band,
            “Sanitized for Your Protection,”
            dead roach floating in the bowl.

Bilgere can always elicit a smile from even the grimmest situation, owing largely to his dexterity with language.

And then there are the poems about dying, and these, too, are funny, despite the most sobering of circumstances. “I Heard a Fly Buzz” plays on the famous Emily Dickinson poem on the same theme. It’s addressed to his sons (‘that means you, Michael and Alex’) as he remembers an hour he saved and still has in his back pocket. ‘And I shall continue with my reminiscences,’ he concludes, just as the title of a later poem asks, “Where Will You Go When You Die?” If he has any influence with the lord, he’d prefer his own backyard, where he can watch his children play and his wife grill chicken.

Meanwhile, his five-year-old son has just moved on from cornflakes to avocados, several of which in the kitchen have not yet ripened, though, when he asks his father if he can have one. If the boy is not impatient, he’s still way too young to understand the way time works, the slow, plodding relentlessness, which makes his father appreciate how gradual maturity is. ‘Years

            I say aloud, enjoying that long,
            luxurious syllable, like a cat
            stretching out on my tongue 

Only, a few minutes later, Michael comes back into the kitchen. “Are they ripe yet?” he asks innocently. (‘Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me,’ as Emily wrote.) The adult’s awareness of the brevity of time, the inevitability of dying, is in sharp, heart-wrenching contrast to the child. In the poem, “Misting,” which opens at daybreak, the speaker in the garden, ‘attentive as a bee’ misting the roses, he reflects:

            Each day brings more bad weather,
            which is another way of saying
            I’m in my sixties. But here, in the frail
            September morning, my hand tipped in fog,
            the flowers lift their faces to me
            with bright, mystifying questions,
            and for once, I have an answer.

A central theme of much of George Bilgere’s poetry is family, from his own position as father to two boys to being a son himself. “Daddy” is a poem about resisting temptation, returning home from work, a la Odysseus, and being rewarded with a small boy’s adoration. “Emergency” and “Being Helpful” are two poems from a child’s perspective about the overwhelming challenges facing a single working mother (his own). “Matchbook” and “The St. Louis Trainyards” conjure his father.

They’re all tied together in a continuum of blood and DNA. “The Dreamer” starts:

            I spread my thumb and forefinger (my
            father’s thumb, grandfather’s 
            forefinger) on the screen 
            to make a close-up, just a dark eye,
            eyelid, eyebrow,
            and show it to my wife.

           That’s me, she says, but I’ve fooled her.
           It’s our son’s eye.

As Michael slumps over his math homework, the speaker’s wife points out the similarity in the posture with the boy’s father, who flashes back to his grandfather and his great-great-grandfather cursing numbers by candlelight in faraway, long-ago Austria. ‘He had never

          been a practical man.

           A dreamer, his mother said,
           his wife said now. That’s all
           he was, all he would ever be.

You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

But Bilgere is hardly a misty-eyed romantic, despite savoring the joys of family. “Front Page” is the sad story of a family on their way to Disneyland in their private airplane, crashing in a snowstorm. The photograph is on the front page of the newspaper on their dining room table (inherited from his grandparents), where the speaker, his wife and their two sons are eating pancakes on a snowy winter day. He tries to imagine the frantic final minutes before the crash, the final reassurances ‘involving love, that beautiful, / reliable old word that had rescued them / so many times before’ while the kids ‘dribble their syrup on the front page,’ and his wife ‘can’t stop laughing.’ The contrast of destinies could not be sharper, but ultimately, it’s all sheer luck.

The final poem, “Salad,” drives the point home, opening on the poet’s mother making a salad while his father grills hamburgers, 1948, a few years before his birth, a scene of happier times between his parents, ‘my father says something

           that makes my mother laugh 
           so hard that I can hear her
           in my backyard tonight 
           in Cleveland, where thanks 
           to them I exist
           at the grill, a beer
           in my hand, a dog barking,
           my wife in the kitchen 
           making a salad.

Cheap Motels of My Youth is a real treat to read. There’s a reason George Bilgere is my favorite poet.