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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
Haywire: Poems
By George Bilgere

Utah State University Press, 2006

Reviewed by Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein



     The poet George Bilgere produces an immediate gut-jerk response. How long can a poet maintain the position of underdog without relenting? The hype is exhausted: come and gone. I will not waste space in this place here echoing the applause for Bilgere that others like Billy Collins have already announced. I cannot lay claim to discovering this poet. He is of the here and now. If poetry is still alive today, it comes alive in the pen of Bilgere.

     Bilgere is one of the most controversial and important figures writing in American poetry today. Who else has the balls to pit himself against the number-one bestselling R & B artist Beyoncé, in his May Swenson Award-winning collection Haywire, in a poem entitled “Say My Name”—the name of one of Beyoncé’s foremost hits. The poem begins: 


Beyonce’s singing,
and what’s strange about that
is, first of all, I somehow know who Beyonce is,

and second, the voice I’m hearing
is coming from the earbuds of an iPod
plugged into a kid sitting about thirty feet from me (17) 

The stance of this poet is staunchly “anti-intellectual”: this much we know from the pretentious accent that has been left off the last “e” in the singer’s name. It could only be the sleight of editorial blunder, but it doesn’t matter. Its inadvertence, its accidental charm tells a fuller story. This poet makes no false claims to knowledge he does not possess and makes no false claims to knowledge he does own. This poet “knows Beyonce.” He understands the rhythms of everyday, the contemporary colloquial idiom—of today. 

     If tradition crumbles, he is prepared to carry the burden of responsibility for that “sin.” The kid sitting “thirty feet” from the narrator of the poem is none other than the narrator’s own student, who is reading the assigned text of Paradise Lost:


I assigned it to him. It’s the immortal
Paradise Lost, by John Milton,
and it’s very long and very hard

and it’s a terrible thing to be reading
late in the summer, time running short,
life running out […] (17)


The “immortal virtues” of poetry are put into question, or at least displaced and then reconfigured. The scene switches to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: 

I don’t blame this kid for blowing out his ears
at an early age, as Adam and Eve
stand there stunned in the garden,
stupidly covering their crotches, (17)


The voice is not shy about this apparent subversion of tradition, about his pursuit of new virtues.  


that would do any good, as if it would stop
Beyonce, dark serpent, from reminding
this nice Catholic boy in his brand new

Tommy Hilifiger muscle shirt,
with his fresh, round-biceps-badass
barbed wired tattoo, that in this
fallen world he’s never,
never, evah gonna get his
smooth white hands on what they burn for.


In this fallen post-apocalyptic world, poetry must re-invest and reorient the body. This is not new; we have heard this before. But what is new, is the way in which the poetic voice assumes and ventriloquizes the voice of the R & B singer together with the R & B-infused, pop culturally savvy kid, in the parroted, parodied enunciation: “evah.”

     Throughout these poems, Bilgere asks what we can bring from the modern music world to poetry in the way that Jazz poetry once recruited elements of Jazz and interpolated Jazz to its own ends. But the essence is never compromised but actually added to and what we get in a poem like “Say My Name” is a powerfully relevant endeavor and declaration of self-identity in the midst of the self-distorted reflections of the modern world.

     In this poem, Bilgere’s foremost technique of oxymoron, of juxtaposing seemingly incongruous, sometimes anachronistic, or disparate concepts or ideologies comes into clear view. It is more than a dialectic of synthesis, its risks are great, and Bilgere teases and interrogates the threat of us as an audience not taking him or his subject matter seriously. So it is to say that the presentation is very cleverly worked out.  In “Miss December,” the narrator describes the experience of happening on a forgotten Playboy in the garage thirty or forty years after the fact. It is not straight intricacy of construction, we may assume, that keeps Bilgere’s poems hanging together. It is something other.

     In the second stanza of the poem the narrator strives to humanize the pin-up: 


She must be in her sixties now,
Somebody’s grandmother.
She wears sneakers
and a warm-up suit
to the grocery store.
her knees are giving her trouble.
nobody bothers
to airbrush her nipples anymore. (26)


We share in this assumption of pity and sympathy, but in the last two stanzas that view is upset and undermined:


But I remember
the times we had back then
when we were young and crazy,
locked in the bathroom for hours
while my sister pounded on the door.

What the hell, I think,
and take her inside.
One more time,
for auld lang syne. (26)


What do we have here? There is exaggeration, a gutsy stab at humor. But we may be put off by the cavalier approach to his subject. “The feminists must be up in arms,” we say, with the aberrant insensitivity of this poet. Is Bilgere controversial for the sake of being controversial? No. He is deadly earnest. We know from reading Bilgere’s other poems in this collection like “Anniversary,” and “Olympics,” in which he laments the dissolution of his marriage, that there is a humorous side to his dead earnestness. Instead, there is a heroic attempt in “Miss December” to reclaim and repossess the playmate as a human being, to “take her inside” and perhaps save her. But the voice is not that foolish to think that he could or should do that. At the end of the poem Bilgere wants to memorialize her in the words “for auld lang syne.” We may think that the poet is performing a substitution of the phrase “for old time’s sake” in the way that this poem plays with substitutions of past and present, of public and private. But the phrase also is a Scottish phrase meaning “days gone by” or “days of yore” and is the title of a poem by the great Scots poet Robert Burns. Thus Bilgere makes of the playmate a thing of poetry, of re-rarified beauty.

     In Bilgere’s hand generational conflicts, between old and new, disappear. Artifacts of the old, where called to mind, are carefully undercut or framed alongside a strong polemic against the threat of hypocrisy. A perfect example is “View of the City of Delft”: 


In Vermeer’s View of the City of Delft
the city beckons from a dreamy void—

But wait!   Hold on a minute.

Poems about paintings, poems you know
were written during some kind of travel grant
by a Guggenheim Fellow crazed with loneliness,

remind of that moment on a first date
when you realize it’s not going anywhere. (38)


Are these poems too polemical? Is Bilgere always on the assault? His universe of many- opinions shooting this way and that are undercut by humor and a situating or dramatizing in everyday events and realities. But does the “narrative” tendency stray too far away from the “lyrical”? Bilgere’s poems are certainly great poems to be read aloud at a conference, a book talk or gossiping about to a friend, but do they require or call for further readings into their hidden unities and meanings? Do these poems even reveal a confessional heart of a poet?

Bilgere’s poetry is poetry in the vein of “man’s man poetry,” a much talked-about species, whose foremost practitioner today may exist in the form of Robin Robertson. In the poem “Waiting,” a poem apparently about the poet’s dead mother waiting in a hospital room to be claimed for cremation by the poet, the poet flees the scene or the usual, perhaps clichéd, emotion. He mentions the name “mother” only once at the beginning of the poem. He wants to keep his “cool” and remain tough, suspicious of the easily spent emotion. He is content throughout but at the end of the poem, he is not able to stay the same without the onset of knifing regret:


But when the guy in his ridiculous hairpiece
asks me if I’d like to go back there
and be with her in that room where she lies    

waiting to be cremated, I say No
thank you, and turn and walk out
onto the sunny street to join the crowd

hustling down the sidewalk,
and I look up at the beautiful white clouds
suspended above the city,


leaving her to wait in that room alone,
for which I will not be forgiven. (49-50)


Even if the scene disturbs us, leaves us indifferent or wanting more, it is genuine in that it does not try to produce an emotion it can’t offer. But what if we expect more from the poet? Isn’t there a phase in which we let the artifice go—whether in poetry or in our daily lives—and immerse ourselves in the scene? That is obviously not this poem.

Towards the end of this collection Bilgere does turn more inward and writes in a more impacted lyrical line, which may be a sign of things to come. In “Going to Bed” a nice balance is achieved between the “lyrical” and the “narrative”:


I check the locks on the front door
        and the side door,
make sure the windows are closed
        and the heat dialed down.
I switch off the computer,
       turn off the living room lights.

[…]

       The stars are halogen-blue.
The constellations, whose names
         I have long since forgotten,
look down anonymously,
         and the whole galaxy
is cartwheeling in silence through the night.

         Everything seems to be ok. (54)



The poem is self-conscious, unapologetic and at times tender, and consequently very satisfying. The worry comes to mind when the irony at risk of becoming destructive or unconsumed. In the last poem, “Global Warming,” Bilgere takes his poetics to the extremes of parody, subversion and irony; and at a point, I think it does reach destructiveness. Once again, Jodie, who we take to be the poet’s ex-wife, and who he dedicates the collection to, is alluded to—“But tonight Jodie’s making gazpacho, / and she has a heavy hand with the cilantro” (57), and there is a tinge too much anger to digest in this poem:


           But, I for one,
am safe. Safe and well-informed. Magma
        cooled. Velociraptors
turned to gasoline.
        Life became a magazine.

All of which occurred
         just to bring me here
to this stool. This apogee.

I have stood on the shoulders of giants.

I am where the astronauts and the starving kids
   would like to be (57).


Whether accessible “light-verse” can in Bilgere’s delicately effortlessly light hand survive the impact with something so heavy, something so sharp and cutting, is a question still to be answered.