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HALFWAY DECENT SINNERS New Works Review
Review of Halfway
Decent Sinners

by Laurel Johnson

The back cover photo of Michael Cleary captures a man with twinkling eyes and mischievous smile.  His poetry reflects that humor, but Cleary's work is multi-faceted.  One critic extols his "eloquent exploration of our flawed human condition." 
This poetry is, indeed, drawn from a world he observes with a keen eye, then mourns or
celebrates through a facile weaving of words.  The Church becomes "a sacred rigamarole of faith." Youthful fear is "dumb hope doing its best not to shudder or let go."  Humorous. Eloquent. Facile. Angry. Empathetic. Cleary's poetry is all these things and more.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from "Lucky Shirt," where the poet considers a wheelchair-bound young man seeking healing in his lucky shirt:

Lucky Shirt.  Meaning – what?
A curse?  A joke?  A prayer?
Such everyday unbearableness.
I want a shirt that says, Sisyphus aint no sissy.
Who knows what words will save us
or what grace we deserve in the end.
But what strength.  What holy spirit
moves in mysterious human ways,
courage that blesses us as we praise.

Sara is a woman who finds illicit love and treasures each moment. In this excerpt from "Aunt Sara and the Sunshower," she questions her fate:

Night overflows the afternoon,
winecool kisses on flushing skin.
As he leaves in the drying dusk,
she wonders what has ended or begun,
afraid to know, know
in these surprised sunshower days
is he the drizzle – or the sun?

In "Aunt Sara and the Man Dying by Ounces" she watches from a distance the family black sheep, the war veteran destroyed by alcoholism:

Knowing how hope ends, she wraps his madness
in the brutal fact of dying: how
not letting go was all he had left to do,
hoarding drops as if they were minutes,
anything to slow the leaking of his days.

"Football at Catholic School in the Undefeated Season" is a deliciously rancorous retrospective of a fat boy turned jock:

No more everybody's roly-poly boy,
all those meannesses so much fun
making fun of you.
Baby Huey and Blubber Butt
like a miracle gone hard to muscle,
bitterness you savor like bile.

From the patient, penetrating heat of Florida to failed relationships to an agnostic's struggle with organized religion, Cleary paints his word pictures with candor and skill. This second book of poetry by Michael Cleary is exceptional and highly recommended.

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