Florida Book Review
by Michael Cleary
CW Books, © 2011, ISBN 978-1-936370-51-1
Weight of loss, of love, of regret, weight of sadness, of faith, of doubt, weight of existence and death: Michael Cleary’s poems each lug a piece of the load of living, the human spirit capable of bearing what it must—with grace and good humor. He was raised in the Adirondack town of Glens Falls, New York, and now finds himself living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Bearable Weight is his third collection of poems, following Hometown, USA and Halfway Decent Sinners.
The book is broken into two sections, “Flummoxed” and “Points of America” (30 poems apiece). They speak to the two halves of his life: youth and adulthood, Glens Falls and Fort Lauderdale, faith and doubt, innocence and experience. They create a topographical map by which the reader can feel around and sense the emotional landscape, and the development of that landscape.
The collection begins with the poem “Adam and Eve Make Love.” It opens with the lines, “Paradise gone/for good.” This idea of paradise lost, of the inability to regain not only innocence but also a seamless and unshaken faith is central to the work as a whole. The vanishing of paradise implies that it once existed, and should exist but doesn’t, and therefore we are left with an ache, a hunger. For Cleary it is desire that satisfies, at least briefly, our longing. It is this earth, this body, our hunger and the ability to answer and respond to it in thoughtful ways that makes us human. All we have is what’s left after paradise, and we must make the best of it—
out of what’s lost,
out of nothing
but one another.”
Throughout these poems there is a struggle between the spiritual and the corporeal, between the sacred and the profane. He defines the battle in his poem “Carnal” with the lines, “Each day/a see-saw/quarrel with/spiritual.” He goes on to say that earthly love is our only consolation for what we now lack after our fall from paradise. He ends with lines which affirm human resilience and endurance:
the bearable weight of
He ends with death, death as the final reprieve from the struggle not only of living, but also of trying to define what living means.
Yet this book is an attempt to add at least a word to that definition in some way, perhaps just a syllable. In “Fingers, Fists, Gabriel’s Wings,” Cleary understands there is a power behind every word.
“Watching my deaf student listen,
I think there is more to words
Than sound ever knows.”
Language becomes a way to reach the meaning for which he longs. Language itself may even be a conduit to that meaning.
Cleary is at his best when he locates that spiritual struggle and the hunger for meaning in events from his past that have marked him significantly. He speaks with keen tenderness of his first marriage and divorce in “First Wife”:
“I see now something dark was passing
between us, the silvered back
of a mirror we looked into and all
we could see was our sadnesses
looking back after we were gone,
unable to forgive ourselves
for all we’d lost of each other.”
The idea of loss, or absence, becomes a physical object, a mirror. This loss existing as a physical space between two people is not only a retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve, but a lived experience in which the lovers are unable to see each other and move closer. Instead, each is trapped in vanity and self-pity at having lost each other, lost paradise, and for that act are unable to forgive themselves.
As the poems move forward in time, the darkness of loss, although a presence, has become less of a threat—as if the author in the writing of these poems has come to terms with his own nature and its place in a larger world.
“Among bright ocean swells
bobbing then lost in a blink.”
This poem (“Seascape”) ends with a view of his new wife walking the shoreline, a hopeful new beginning in terms of landscape and love.
The poems grow from the confusion of “Flummoxed” where Cleary is “desperate/with the night’s last song,” nearly broken by the weight of living, to the acceptance in the “Points of America” section where he employs the metaphor of what's termed “proud flesh” on a horse: “cuts and sores healed so rough/the hide never forgives its hard lessons.” These later poems written in Florida become not Paradise Regained, but rather a relinquishing to an unknowable power, an acceptance of the Fall. What is left is this body in this life among the other living.
For Cleary, Florida is a coast to stand on and look out at a horizon that can never be reached but only observed and felt as a distance, as wind, as wave after endless wave. Florida is the symbol for Cleary’s metaphysics: a body reaching into endless and unfathomable waters. In “Mostly Wordless,” he captures lovemaking as a precious “exaltation” of human possibility which prevails in this world, if in no other.
“There are no angels here,
that gibber of moans
and jabber of sighs,
God is somewhere
if He’s anywhere,
the body’s exaltation
as any hymn.”