Monday, March 16, 2015

Imperial, a Royally Good Read
                                               by Barbara Sabol       

By the Numbers:

Imperial, by George Bilgere

Copyright 2014

60 pages

ISBN: 13: 978-0-8229-6268-7

In Sept of 2013 I was fortunate to attend a weekend poetry retreat sponsored by the Ohio Poetry Association at Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio, which included a two-day workshop facilitated by George Bilgere. In the course of the weekend, George read several poems from his soon-to-be-released Imperial. His delivery was that of a raconteur whose signature wry observations are tempered by good-natured wit.  Or perhaps the other way around―an impish wit tempered by philosophical musings on the nature of being human. Either way, the audible music of good poetry was reinforced  by the poet's reading, and inspired me to give Imperial, Bilgere's sixth collection of poems, a closer read for review in Poetry Matters.

As in each collection before it, the poems in Imperial are eminently accessible, in the best way possible: Bilgere is a shrewd observer of human behavior (his own included), a lyric storyteller whose narratives dip below the concrete surface to hint at the beating heart of a day-to-day life. An evening walk through a suburban neighborhood takes a "mystical and obscure" turn in "Scorcher;" an obsolete set of Encyclopedia Britannica becomes the ghost of an era when people watched ". . .Gunsmoke/through a haze of Winstons," and which now sit ". . .on a card table in a light rain" in the poem, "Yard Sale." A Duncan Imperial Yo-Yo, with its power to "Split the Atom./Shoot/theMoon," becomes a talisman for  "the lost ten-year-olds of America" in the title poem. In this centerpiece poem, a-brim with a boy's and a nation's sense of wonder and fear and possibility, the nostalgia for America's Camelot is perfectly captured.

As with the Yo-Yo in "Imperial," objects serve as a conduit for memory and for the nostalgic tone that washes, like longing, over the poems in this book. "I love the hoses of summer" begins the wonderful poem "Hoses." In this poem, a common object conjures a childhood memory infused with equal parts sadness and happiness:

     . . .
     I think of my father, armed
     with his scotch and garden hose
     probing the dusk
     with water, the world
     in flames around him,
     booze running the show.

Yet the same memory contains delight, via the garden hose:

     . . .
     my sisters and I would run
     in our swimsuits through the grass
     while he followed us
     with a cold beam of water.

Likewise, in "Coupons," a photograph of the speaker's grandfather conjures the story  of his grandmother as "a pretty sixteen-year-old" who catches the grandfather's eye, while, in present tense, the grandson cuts coupons for his arthritic grandmother. The grandmother recounts that first encounter, when he smiles at his lovely bride-to-be,

     "And that," said Grandma,
     "was that." I snipped out
     another coupon for Campbell's Soup,
     or Borax. Milk of Magnesia.
     Chicken pot pies. Denture cream.

 In the space of five lines, the romantic girl becomes a pragmatic grandmother, via the tell-tale world
of objects that inhabits the grandmother's "stuffy apartment." The fragmentation of syntax into punched out noun fragments at the end of this list of objects further reinforces the implied limits of a once vital life.

Bilgere takes on the poet's task of witness: signaling not only object and action, but delving into dimensions beyond the tangible, directly observable realm. In "Lint," the great topics of love and death are conjured via a wad of lint:

     . . .the lint itself
     is the palpable bond of our union,
     our clothes whirling together and mingling,
     our selves, our very lives,
     becoming lint.

The notion that in every good poem at least two subjects reside is borne out by the work in this collection. The surface wit of the poems shimmers above deeper layers of reflection, so that while the reader may chuckle at a line, the truer and sometimes sad, always poignant meaning bubbles to the surface. However, the reader is not drawn into sadness, as the poet maintains a light touch on the tableaux his poems create. The true subject of  "Musial," for example, is a father's alcoholism and a downward  financial and marital spiral. Stan Musial (the ace Cardinals pitcher from the 50's), is the shining foil against which the failings of the speaker's father are revealed. The poet balances such darkness against wit's lightness when, in the final stanza, he compares Musial's legendary visit to his father's dealership thus:

     . . .
     as when,
     in the old myths, a bored god
     dresses up like one of us, and falls
     through a summer thunderhead
     to shock us from our daydream drabness
     with heaven's dazzle and razzmatazz.

Here, not only the vision of baseball player as mythic god but the music of the those last three lines, in particular, lift us out of the ". . .dark mouths of garages on our street" into a sonically delicious and spirited energy. 

Among the four temperaments, Imperial  is strongest in story and imagination. The poems are context-rich―the reader never has to work out the place, time or figures of a poem. Context is fleshed out by tangible elements that lend a highly imagistic backdrop to the narrative of each poem. Character and setting are forgrounded in these poems, so that we are transported to "summer twilight" in ". . .one of  the green, old,/more or less identical/streets of our neighborhood" in "Scorcher;" in "Desire," we are standing in the grocery store line behind a beautiful young woman, and the reverie angles into the speaker's fantasized future: "The way her dark hair/falls to her narrow waist/makes me ache/to pay for a washer-dryer combo," and the fantasy continues in a split-screen erotic/drolly domestic progression, while the tension of sexual longing is strung against the speaker's ". . .beer and toilet paper and frozen pizzas" on the check-out conveyer.

In most of the poems, however, the context of the past prevails, manifested through a present-day experience or observation. In "Traverse City," for example, we are driving past  ". . .the toy lake where my family came from. . .//The tiny cottages on the shore. . ." and the speaker detours into a reminiscence of summer boyhoods by that lake, made visible by apt and specific description, such that the smell of wind over the water of that lake lifts off the page. In "Arcadia" we are at "the old/Cleveland public golf course" as it's bulldozed into a Walmart, and, again, the speaker drifts back to the vision of  ". . .those men and women/on the distant clearances/and the twinkle of their silver wands/in the morning light. . ." The magic of those "silver wands" carries us to a halcyon era that has to do with so much more than bygone golf courses.

What binds the poems in Imperial into a reflective and cohesive collection is the silver thread of time. The theme of temporality, and its accompanying tone of nostalgia―a looking back with tenderness, with sadness, w/understanding that comes from time and age―runs through the book. The collection is bookended by elegies that highlight cycles of life, opening with the spreading of Aunt Betty's ashes in the Thames in "As Requested," and closing with "Weather," a tribute to the speaker's father and to familial love that endures every failing:

     My father would lift me
     to the ceiling in his big hands
     and ask, How's the weather up there?
     And it was good, the weather
     of being in his hands, his breath
     of scotch and cigarettes, his face
     smiling from the world below.

The single-stanza poem fast-forwards then to the speaker as a father, lifting his own son, continuing the cycle:

     . . .
     . . .my little boy
     looking down from his flight
     below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,
     his eyes wide and already staring
     into the distance beyond the man
     asking him again and again,
     How's the weather up there?
While the structure follows a solid narrative line, this poet's approach to narrative hinges more on a stylistic than structural approach. Signature to Bilgere's style are the concrete language, imagistic rendering of context/scene, informal diction, use of dialogue, and a rhythm created by short lines delivered in a direct style, in a voice that is genuine.

George Bilgere is a poet whose proverbial pen presses firmly on the pulse of human nature, its charming quirks, common drives, universal sadnesses and joys. He is willing to risk the personal to reveal the universal, through this collection of plain-spoken, powerhouse poems, stripped of artifice, pretense, airs. These narratives are delivered via the natural speech line, in colloquial language textured with voices, in a personal, almost confiding manner, so that the reader is drawn in, invested in the tangible details and the insights. We lean into these poems as one would lean across a cafe table to catch the nuance and detail of a friend's story. The poems are populated by evocative objects that haunt the text and induce an atmosphere, a past, a narrative truth that resonates after each poem is read, and re-read. The dynamic of these poems resides in the juxtaposition of the ordinary exterior landscape chafing against the interior emotional life of the poem's speaker, and the power of objects to haunt, to suggest another time and place, memories that shape our perceptions and  take us back to another age, an era when ". . .we entered the Space Age, dogs and men/in orbit,/. . .Cuban missiles pointing/their little heads at us, and voila!" Voila!, indeed.

An Interview with George

Engaging in a close read of Imperial made this collection all the more satisfying. It's the best way to read, I believe, to get down through the strata of a poem, to experience its meaning at the narrative and the symbolic level. Your poetry, at first glance, might appear like straightforward narrative; the mind's eye scans and appreciates the textures and surfaces of your wonderfully tangible and accessible language. However, these poems are deliciously nuanced and layered. There's so much more than meets the mind's eye to each one; an emotional and at times philosophical depth beneath the tangible surface.

One element of the poems in this book is the seemingly very personal "I," the narrator who shares his history, his day-to-day musings, his quandaries and fears. I'd like to begin the interview with a question about the personal nature of the poems. And I would like to thank you, in advance, for this dialogue and for your rich and memorable poetry; book-to-book, I have admired and been inspired by your writing.

The poems in Imperial (and in your previous books, as well) have a very personal feel; a reader can imagine a very fine line between poet and "speaker" of the poem. How much personal risk is involved in writing poems about a dysfunctional family, for example, and about other personal relationships and experiences?

GB: You're right, the two are very close. And I suspect they will keep getting closer. My sense is that the older you get, the farther along you are to being whoever it is you become, the more important it is that you get that person, that self, into the poems. Like most poets, when I was much younger I had much less to say about myself. If I wrote a poem about, say, a turtle, it was pretty much entirely  about that turtle. Nowadays I'd focus more on my reaction to that turtle, to what that turtle speaks to in me. It's important to me, when I'm reading someone's poems, that I get a sense of that person speaking to me. T.S. Eliot's whole "cult of the impersonal" isn't something I find very appealing. So my poems in my recent books tend to be centered around a person very much like me―perhaps an exaggerated version in some respects―moving through the world.

As for the risks of writing about a dysfunctional family―well, do you know of a family that isn't dysfunctional? I mean, if you had a perfectly happy family you'd probably never turn to poetry. In an odd way, we writers have to be grateful for the flaws and foibles of the people who produced us. Without them we wouldn't have anything to write about. To me, the real "risk" in a poem is avoiding the sentimental, the maudlin. And that can be tricky. My own way around this is to try to find the comic edge in the midst of tragedy. I tend to like poems that somehow manage that difficult trick of being both funny and sad.

The figure of the troubled father was prevalent in this collection. You present a rounded perspective of the father, though: there is the drinking, the bravado, the financial failure, yet the speaker expresses tenderness toward the man with "the big hayseed smile." The last poem, "Climate," describes an especially tender memory that says all that needs to be said about love between a parent and child. Have you found poetry to provide a sense of emotional release, a means of reconciling past and present?

GB: I don't know if I've managed a reconciliation between the two. I think the uneasy and always changing relationship between us and our pasts is what fuels so much of our writing. At thirty you think you finally understand your parents. Then at forty you realize you got them all wrong. And at fifty you have to revise the whole thing, usually because you realize that life is much more complicated than you could understand when you were young, and it must have been just as tough for them. I recently became a father myself, and I can only imagine all the bother my son will have to go through figuring me out. I'm already feeling guilty about it. But back to the question: that tension, that slippage between past and present isn't something I think I'll ever resolve. If I do I'll probably stop writing altogether. The dynamic tension between the now and the then is where I locate my poems.

What do you think is the role of poetry in our or in any culture? Do you believe it serves a societal or political function? I was particularly struck by the bald irony in poems like "Mexican Town" and "Far from Afghanistan," which stood out in this collection as statements about the devolution of society via technology-as-interaction and via international conflict.

GB: If you're asking if I think that poetry can serve as an instrument of political change, I guess I'd have to say no, to be realistic. The fact is that most people who read poetry are poets themselves, and are already on our side. It's a strange thing, isn't it, how artists tend almost universally to be liberals, to be on the anti-war, anti-American global domination side of things? I doubt if a supporter of the policies of George Bush or Dick Cheney has ever read one of my poems, and even if they had I don't think there'd be much chance of changing their views. In today's world I think it's the essay, the blog, the viral video, that effects change. The culture has changed a lot since I was young in the '60's. Back then it was actually people mobilizing, marching in the street, demanding that power be taken away from the corrupt and doddering political machine defined by Nixon and McNamara, that got things done, as was the case with the Selma marchers. We tend not to gather publicly and march nowadays. We sit inside and twiddle on our keyboards. I'm sensing a much bigger problem here. . .

Your poems are so wonderfully tangible and textured with specific objects, like lint, hoses, a set of encyclopedias, the Duncan Yo-Yo―the list goes go on and on. (I'm also a child of the 50's and 60's, so many of the tangible references strike a resonant chord.) Please talk about the power or magic of objects, in terms of their evocative power in poetry and also in our lives.

GB: I have a poem somewhere about the rotary phone. I've written about typewriters, bowling alleys. I guess my interest in all that obsolete old stuff comes from my sense that most poetry at its core is elegy. It is the nature of being human to miss the past, to mourn the constant process of change that is always taking everything away from us. We grab onto those old objects of our youth like drowning men. We stuff our attics and basements with the useless junk of the past, perhaps simply to remind ourselves that we really did exist, that we were once at the vibrant center of things. People my age, sixty-ish, watch the kids walk by tapping at their screens and wonder if we're even still here. So those old objects take on an almost talismanic power for us.

Nostalgia seems to be the dominant tone in many of these poems. It's quite the complicated attitude―equal parts longing, sadness, bittersweetness, comfort. I would think it would be difficult to directly translate this full-bodied emotion into one word in another language. Do you aim for the nostalgic touch in your poems or is it something your subjects naturally render?

GB: This is closely related to your previous question. I don't want to seem like some old-timer constantly boring young people with stories of a lost, golden age. But I certainly am prone to severe fits of yearning for the vanished past. Give me my little tea biscuit and I turn into Proust. Again, though, in order to prevent this from becoming incredibly dull I try to find a way to inject some sort of wry humor into my reminiscences. I think you can see that in the encyclopedia poem, "Yard Sale."

Your style of writing is very distinct and  effective in its plain-spoken, direct approach. How has this stripped-down, vernacular style evolved over your years of writing?

GB: My writing is simple, direct, and plain. This is the plainspeak, the common language of my Midwestern forefathers. When I was younger I affected a much high, more vatic language. My influences were people like Yeats and Eliot, Anthony Hecht and Howard Nemerov. But I was just putting on airs, trying, as my grandmother would say, to be better than I was. When I was around fifty―quite old!―I relaxed into speaking the way I really wanted to speak, rather than how I thought a poet should speak. For me, writing in this plain and unadorned diction gives the poems a modest, understated quality, a dry Midwestern sense of humor that isn't possible in the register of a higher diction.

You've been compared to Billy Collins, and that comparison seems apt in the most complimentary way possible. What poets and writers have been your models?

GB: Yes, I can't turn around without someone telling me I sound like Billy Collins. And the similarities are certainly there, especially in terms of the plain diction. But I think many poets are sounding like that nowadays. Just as the High Modernists like Yeats and Pound and Eliot all sound somewhat alike at the turn of the last century, there's something in the air now, or maybe it's in the water, that makes poets like Collins, Tony Hoagland, Steven Dunn, Denise DuHamel, Steven Dobyns, Thomas Lux, all sound a bit similar. We are of our age, and the age is dressed in this rather casual set of clothes. And part of the age, of course, is a kind of highly inflected irony not exactly available to the Modernists, since they hadn't seen Groucho Marx yet, or Woody Allen or Saturday Night Live.

Who are your touchstone poets, the ones you come back to for inspiration and comfort?

GB: I go back to John Donne―always. Thomas Hardy. The great Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner, Wislawa Szymborska, whose voice (though I know it only through translation) seems somehow like the perfect voice for our times.

As an English professor, do you find young students excited about poetry and about literature, in general? Do you feel hopeful that a generation of strong writers and lovers of strong writing is preparing to follow the current generation of established writers?

GB: As for the interest my students, and the students I meet in my travels, have in poetry,  I think they're passionate about it. There are more writing programs in the country now than there ever have been. There are more young poets excited about the possibilities of language and literature than there were, certainly, when I was coming up. I think the future of poetry is in good hands.

I'd be interested in your take on the current dichotomy between "street" and "academic" poetry. Do you feel there are two distinct brands of writing, or that this may be a false dichotomy?

GB: The dichotomy between "street" and "academic" poetry: Yes, I think there's a huge difference, if by "street" you mean rap poetry and performance poetry. In those cases, the emphasis tends to be on the performance itself, whereas in the typical "academic" poetry reading you've got some nice university professor standing at a podium intoning his or her verse. I don't think there's much similarity between the two―which is great. Both worlds have something to offer to the larger conversation.

What project(s) are you working on now? Are there any new themes or subjects you're itching to incorporate into your work?

I was on sabbatical for the past term from John Carroll University here in Cleveland. My wife and little son and I spent the whole time in East Berlin, where I was working on a new collection of poems. My subject, broadly speaking, tends to be America, and I find I write best about it when I'm far away. It was a fantastic trip, and I recommend East Berlin to anyone likes beer and wiener schnitzel!

George Bilgere’s sixth book of poems is Imperial, from the University of Pittsburgh Press. He has won the Cleveland Arts Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Midland Authors Award, and the May Swenson Poetry Award. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has called Bilgere’s work “a welcome breath of fresh, American air in the house of contemporary poetry.” He has given readings at the Library of Congress, the 92nd Street Y in New York, and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Cleveland Partnership for Arts and Culture. His poems are often featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, and he was recently a guest on A Prairie Home Companion. Bilgere teaches at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.