Halfway Decent Sinners

by Jesse Millner
The Florida Book Review
July 2008

Perhaps every poet should drive a beer truck. Perhaps every poet should grow up with the rigorous rigmarole of Catholicism. If that were to happen, then, and only then, would a poet craft a book as funny, sorrowful and beautiful as Michael Cleary’s Halfway Decent Sinners.

The first section of the book, “Original Sins,” brings us “Boss’s Son,” which reveals key themes of the collection.  “Gradually they taught me their secrets:/ let your legs do the lifting and save your back.” And herein lies Cleary’s genius: Within the literal, tangible lessons that the other workers impart to the “boss’s son,” lie profound ideas about the worlds of work and play. Much like Phillip Levine’s What Work Is, Cleary’s poems show us this wisdom that comes from “sweat,” “sore muscles” and “hangovers.” The effect of this poem is to show clearly a young man’s entry into that world and his ambiguous relationship with his father, who is also his boss. Because the poet’s father will die young, a powerful light is cast upon this difficult relationship.

The real skill of Cleary’s work is revealed in this first section as well. He creates concrete and specific situations, allows us to enter into those places and share the experiences imagistically. However, there’s much more than a funny and/or moving experience chronicled in these poems: they often bring real complexity: a little box opens and out springs trouble, beauty and insight. We read about childhood encounters with Catholicism, “I never heard a nun fart,” and are surprised to find the speaker’s longing for a real girl nun, Sister Robert Claire, revealed in the poem. Again, Cleary begins with the tangible and specific (and often quite funny) and brings in the much larger realm of adolescent desire in a way that seems natural, even inevitable in the movement of the poem.

The second section of the book deals with the rather odd Aunt Sara who provides a beautiful space between the first and third sections of the book. Here the poems are less narrative and more lyrically risk-taking. They deal with the sighs of illicit fulfillment, of strange love and lust as in “Aunt Sara’s Nap”: “Nuzzling her cheek upon his chest/ She molds herself around him.” A remarkable simile shows the intensity of this lovemaking in “Aunt Sara, Waiting”: “as his body gusts above her/like a kite on an April day.”  Within this section, there’s also the very uncomfortable poem “Aunt Sara at the Meat Counter, “ where she encounters a child,  “a boy, his face twisted with screams./ She knows she could comfort him, how easy/ to nurse any man’s child.”

The last part of the book, “Dirty Jokes,” finds the poet dealing with the most serious issues, including the premature death of his father. These poems are intensely beautiful and rigorous examinations of loss and longing. While the early parts of the collection document the loss of traditional religious belief, including the soothing notion that heaven awaits the faithful and therein lies the opportunity to make things right, the final section shows Cleary unsparingly looking for ultimate meaning, either in each particular poem or in the long meditation that a book of poetry sometimes provides. In his case the poems add up to a kind of redemption in the hard-earned realization that truly living means unloading beer trucks, learning crude jokes, falling in love, training a dog, getting divorced and remarried, losing one’s father, instead of dwelling on the possibilities of an officially-sanctioned afterlife. The meaning of Cleary’s meditation is the acknowledgment of agnosticism and his ability to accept the hard and beautiful ambiguity that loss and sorrow, seasoned with those too-fleeting moments of laughter, even happiness, are the central truths of our lives. The reader feels the imprint of a real life lived on every page.

But the most important effect of the book is shown in the poem, “Blue Barns Road,” near the end of the collection. Here Cleary brings about a sad reconciliation through language: “so let me sweeten/ the lousy deal you got before I let you go.” And the poem becomes the act of letting go of his father, and for a moment the “real” and tangible world of sorrow merges with and becomes the words and their meanings that Cleary so adeptly shares with us. Further, in “Blue Barns” the literal barns along the road are replaced in the poem’s closure by the figurative Blue Barns of heaven. 

The real and imagined, earth and paradise, life and death, all exist simultaneously in Cleary’s poems.  And because of this amazing juxtaposition, he generously brings us along on the journey between this world of light and love and loss, and the next world where perhaps the sorrows of this one will be finally recompensed. Or not.


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