NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
The White Museum by George Bilgere
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2010)
By his own admission, George Bilgere writes poems “you could sit down and have coffee with.” In other words, they are accessible, direct and refreshingly free of those literary devices that are traditionally employed to give voice to poetic expression. The absence of such adornment makes them ideally suited to the flat, plain Midwestern speech that Bilgere says he has inherited from his ancestors.
There is always a danger with this style of writing that some of the poems may fall at the first hurdle rather than draw the reader into their world but there were many here that delighted me with their originality, wit and intelligence.
In the main, these poems read like a casual conversation between two friends. Bilgere writes about what he knows - the everyday world of the university campus - everything from janitors to college students, conversations with neighbours and friends, café society, the intrusion of the television news. He even writes about such mundane things as putting out the weekly trash. These pieces are rich in observation and are scenes with which we can all identify. If there is any central purpose here, it is to hold up a mirror to falsehood and pretentiousness - all the things that are irritating about modern life - and to blitz them into oblivion.
The opening poem, Zero, with its play on the theme of zero resistance, sets the scene for what is to follow. It is casual, like a woman’s robe that “has a habit of falling open.” At the same time there is precise observation about the state of the weather both inside and outside; about things done and things left undone and the satisfaction that is to be found in the simplest actions of everyday life. It is a neat poem that can be read on several levels all at once in which the words are carefully chosen to accommodate a range of different meanings.
The contrast between youth and age in The Fall is exquisitely engineered:
……I was readingthe sports section in the lobbywhen a boy, probably sixteen or so,ran in and called my name.An old woman has fallen,he said, frightened that somethingso enormous could happen, that fateshould cast him as an emissaryannouncing dynastic collapseinstead of just a high school kid….
At the same time, there is a cool air of detachment. The poem never descends into the trap of sentimentality; it simply closes with the statement “an old woman has fallen.” The ending is rather like a newsreader reporting an incident before moving on to the next item.
This may be the poetry of plain speech but it can, at times, also be employed to shock and surprise. In View from the Deck the word “cancer” is repeatedly thrown in to the poem like a malignant tumour that is growing inside an otherwise ordinary text. The scene is outdoors. It is a summer’s evening and a neighbour is watering plants:
Nice evening, she calls to mein cancer, a language I learnedfrom my mother, who spoke itbeautifully….---------……………………Yes,I say, in my perfectly inflected cancer,and tomorrow’s supposed to beeven nicer.
A similar device is employed powerfully in The White Museum where, half way in to the poem, the reader discovers that this is no ordinary museum:
And perhaps today,as I sit in this café, watching the snowand thinking about my aunt,a young medical student somewhereis moving through the white museumof her brain, making his way slowlyfrom one great room to the next.
Moving away from the personal, the detached air of many of the poems is also used to good effect when dealing with matters of war. In Graduates of Western Military Academy we are told of a pilot who “got to blow up Japan,” and it is told as casually as if it was just one of a number of items on his “to do” list that day. Similarly, in Roses:
…a girl in a border townis strapping a bombto the shy breastsnobody ever got to kiss…
Here, the juxtaposition of something so tender as a breast and yet so destructive as a bomb is the complete antithesis of that old slogan “Make love, not war.”
Bilgere’s Nice Place to Live serves up a damning indictment of contemporary society where “being white and well-off in America” breeds a certain kind of complacency about the horror of war and the victims of war.
In other places there is a real commitment to, and sympathy with, the artist’s calling. There’s a wonderful poem about Monet painting his haystacks. Once again, in the chatty Bilgere style, the vocabulary is as light as a soufflé but there is also this engagement with the truth that lies at its core:
……….Greatness….is the steady haystack of a man’s love,burning, freezing, coalescing,but enduringin the changing light.
Finally, when Bilgere does decide to adorn a poem with an image it is a heart-stopper. I’m thinking here of his description of the Great Horned Owl in the poem Owl:
Fat as a fire hydrant, fog lamps for eyes.Owlishly regarding me.
Only Bilgere could come up with a couple of images like that! The big irony comes later. It turns out there is no owl there after all:
This is an owl-free zone,it’s all owled out, it’s been thoroughlyde-owled.I just wanted an excuse to sayowl.
This is Bilgere’s fifth collection of poetry. Along the way he has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Pushcart Prize. It will come as no surprise that the present collection won him the annual Autumn House Poetry Prize.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and poet living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press in 2011.