Blood Pages by George Bilgere Review
by Charles Rammelkamp
Blood Pages by George Bilgere
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018
$15.95, 80 pages
Four lines from the bottom of the final poem, “Watering Flowers,” in George Bilgere’s wonderful new collection, Blood Pages, the poet begins to draw the curtain on a bravura performance: “everyone smiling and about to vanish into night.” The poem focuses on a little boy in late spring twilight on the verge of becoming a rational being – “he’s still living in that world before everything / makes a kind of hard, no-nonsense sense / you can’t do anything about….” Meanwhile, the rest of us are in various stages of vanishing into the night, exiting the stage. The best and most essential of Bilgere’s poems partake of this melancholy awareness of the passage of time, whether in the form of dying parents, the promising but fleeting future of youth, or one’s own aging person.
Indeed, the book opens on these lines from “’56 Corvette”:
I’m grateful to the camera for reaching out
sixty years and putting a stop
to time, if only for 1/125th of a second
In this poem, the father is dead by the end of the year. The sadness of the death of a parent is also a feature of the poems, “Living Will” (mother), “Tar Pits” (father), “Boomers” (both). In this last poem the speaker comes upon a photograph in a bureau of his young parents, carefree, out for dinner, a black and white snapshot from the fifties, only to reflect “it’s your turn / to be in the bureau.”
This awareness of one’s own mortality is humorously, if poignantly on display in “End of August” (the very title is redolent of death), which begins:
Such a nice summer it’s been:
the dawn laps at the public pool
with the other graying swimmers, our own
little Olympics every morning, racing old age
and death (who seems to be
on steroids, but what else is new).
In poems like “The Rose Trellis,” “Letter to the Dying,” and “Sarah” it’s the death of a friend that conjures the elegiac tone. In the first, the speaker is interrupted in his homeowner chore of painting a trellis by the appearance f his friend Jim who lures him away to the ballpark to see the Indians and Yankees. “Sabathia was pitching, / there would be hot dogs and beer.” Three years later, Jim is dead, but
he somehow lives on, right there
at the border where the old paint
meets the fresh new coat of white
I never finished putting down,
the point where Jim showed up
and we went off to the game.
In “I Tie My Shoes,” the speaker is out for a stroll when he sees Bill up ahead, the Religious Studies professor whose teenaged son was killed by a drunk. “Bill’s bald spot / dawned like a tonsure and his gait grew tentative and unsure, and his gaze
turned inward as his body curled itself
around the enormous boy-shaped
emptiness, and the question
he spends his days asking God.
Reluctant to encounter Bill, knowing his appearance will only reinforce and deepen Bill’s sorrow as he asks the speaker about his own little boy, the speaker stops and pretends to tie his shoe while Bill ambles off into his gloom.
Similarly, in “Letter to the Dying,” the speaker frets about writing a letter to his dying friend, which he knows he must do. “Writing to the dying is difficult / because I don’t want to say anything true.” Whatever he says will only remind his friend of his imminent death, make matters worse, just as avoiding mentioning it will also emphasize the enormity of the situation, the elephant in the room. His friend is surely already feeling terrible. Why make things worse? Maybe, thinks, ending the poem:
The compassionate thing would be to say nothing,
to just pretend the whole thing isn’t happening.
But he’s dying.
The subjects of Bilgere’s fellow feeling do not necessarily have to be acquaintances. In “Farmer’s Market” it’s an army veteran in a wheelchair, encountered at a farmer’s market, “the little bit of him / Iraq gave back.” In “Pancake Dilemma,” the speaker is reading about another terrorist explosion in a subway in Europe while pouring syrup over his pancakes, feels a sort of survivor’s guilt, losing his appetite, then digs into his breakfast, “trying not to enjoy them too much.” In “In Praise of Soup,” a poem about that food eaten the same way the whole world over, it’s the innocent victims of a drone strike, a wedding party in some distant Middle Eastern desert village, taken for terrorists by faulty intelligence.
Let us bow our heads to them,
let us sip and slurp our soup together
at the common table, as if in prayer.
In “The Chartr’d Thames” it’s the unwitting Ohio farmer’s son who pronounces London’s river to “rhyme with sames, as lisped / by a Castilian” while his classmates “look down and smile / with the joy of feeling superior.”
But the main thing about Bilgere’s poems, besides their empathy, is their humor. He is funny! Poem after poem brings a smile to the reader’s lips, whether it’s an overheard conversation in a Starbuck’s, a tired waitress in a diner who nevertheless is the lynchpin of civilization, or the middle-aged guy who has just been told to give up salt by his doctor, there’s a comic sympathy at work as we watch those players – watch ourselves – vanishing into night.