reviewed on January 2, 2023
In an interview with Barbara Sabol in 2015, George Bilgere describes his language-use as “plainspeak, the common language of my Midwestern forefathers.”
Understated, immediate, vernacular in both idiom and inflection, Bilgere’s poetry, written in what he has elsewhere called “the common language of the culture,” enacts in its diction the everyday middle-class life it takes as its subject matter. A pickup basketball game, a morning walk, a slip-'n-slide—in Bilgere’s work, seemingly banal experiences are attended to with loving consideration, so that, through them, we glimpse the mystery and power of the forces within and alongside which we exist.
Though a collection like Central Air presents on one level, then, as the homespun meditations of an aging suburban dad—on which, more later—its poetics might also be said to resemble what Roland Barthes in 1953 called “writing degree zero,” a “neutral and inert state” of language which “deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament.” Akin to journalism, such “colorless writing” aspires to a “style of absence,” Barthes writes, “which is almost an ideal absence of style.”
What Bilgere is trying to do, in other words, is to strip away the artifice of poetry to achieve as plain and as unadorned of a language as possible; Bilgere attends not to the sonic materiality of language—there is almost zero investment, in Central Air, in something like assonance, for instance—but to the human narrative and to emotional core onto which, like a window, such language opens.
In Central Air, language is transparent.
“I am ten with my father / in a St. Louis hotel,” Bilgere writes in “Last Night.” “It is late, the TV a black / and white campfire.”
For Barthes, “writing degree zero” offered a new and ostensibly non-ideological mode of writing. While the realism of 19th-century writers like Balzac and Flaubert normalized capitalist class relations—epitomized, for Barthes, in the figure of the omnipotent narrator—more avant-garde realisms might expose and dismantle class relations through their neutral or even “negative” style. The work of Albert Camus constituted one such project, as did, for Barthes, the painting of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, in which the visible traces of artistic production remained visible.
Hardly avant-garde, Bilgere himself seems less interested in deconstructing class relations than in challenging what he perceives as an overly academic—and unnecessarily intellectualized—American poetics. Though dedicated to Billy Collins, Central Air seems most indebted, in this way, to Garrison Keillor, a figure who has championed Bilgere’s poetry to considerable extent and whose folksy personas seem to peer out, as from stage-right, from behind Bilgere’s own salt-of-the-earth persona.
Bilgere far outpaces Keillor, though, when the transparency of his language opens onto a scene or situation or speaker of real emotional gravity. The most masterful poem in the collection is “Mr. Something,” reproduced here in its entirety:
She’s just sixteen, this is only her second
summer job ever, and OK the nursing home
makes you wear this pukey orange smock
but it’s not nearly as gross as the uniform
at Chick-fil-A and you don’t come home
smelling like Chick-n-Strips and fries,
and you can even watch TV while sitting
at the bedside of old men like this one,
Mr. Something, she can never remember,
a weird last name and really, you don’t
ever get to know them because after
a week or a month you come in one day
to serve the dinner shift and the bed
is empty, or there’s a new old person
lying there and the only hard part
is when guys like Mr. Something—bald,
kind of like a turtle—start refusing
to open their mouths so you can’t spoon
the whipped peas in, the pureed ham,
it’s like they’ve had enough of everything,
but all that is ninety years away
and this morning Mr. Something is still
my four-year-old son who will not—
will not—open his mouth for anything
other than buttered noodles and French fries.
Astonishing in its bait-and-switch volta, “Mr. Something” wormholes vertiginously through space and time, so that what appears a conventional encounter between youth and maturity—a Gen Z satire, perhaps—becomes a more compelling meditation on fatherhood, perspective, and mortality in multiple forms.
Behind the poem, moreover—ghosting it—are those cultural forces that shape its characters’ lives, from the corporatization of American healthcare to the deterioration of the nuclear family. While Bilgere rarely indicts, say, an entity like “late capitalism,” Central Air doggedly identifies such forces, so that the collection’s neutral or “zero-degree” writing partakes, after all, in the class critique so essential to Barthes.
In cultivating a populist, non-academic American poetics, Bilgere has worked across his career outside the poetry-industrial complex of big-money prizes, fellowships, splash reviews, controversies, Twitter cachet, and tit-for-tat favoritism. Bilgere is not in the cool-kids club. That is to his credit.
And is to the credit of the University of Pittsburgh Press that they support work like Central Air, and that, in so doing, they ensure true and wide-ranging diversity in contemporary poetry.