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HALFWAY DECENT SINNERS Review of
Halfway Decent Sinners

Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century
Review of Halfway Decent Sinners
by Gary Kay
<www.rattle.com>

Halfway Decent Sinners, Michael Cleary's second book (his first was Hometown, USA, San Diego Press), explores with skill and sensitivity numerous subjects that cover the broad range of human experience. A recurring theme in most is the glories and perils of the body. A fine example is "Boys Skinny Dipping at the Y in Winter." On the one hand, it is a lyric, celebrating the spontaneity of youth and the power and prowess of the body. Yet on a subtler level, it is an elegy, lamenting the loss of innocence and the inevitable decline of the physical. This double-edged dynamic is sustained throughout. 

First, there is the narrative context. The poem begins with "Look at us there," plunging the reader into the immediate present. Yet the speaker is no longer adolescent, so the poem is shaped with the awareness that this is a moment that has passed, to be recovered only in memory.

Paradoxes abound. The "boys of summer" are in an indoor pool in winter, warmed by "refracted sun," and protected from the cold by window blocks "thickened with ice." What they breathe is not the fresh breezes of summer, but the chlorine that attacks their lungs. They are beautifully naked--open, innocent, wild--but also awkward and vulnerable, "stripped bare" and lacking the convenience of clothes.

As they jump in and out of the pool, and on and off the springboard, the place reverberates with their energy and abandon. The "springboard's quickening beat" mirrors their vigor and vitality. They are alive in the moment, at one with their experience.

The last stanza shifts from a panoramic overview to the personal and intimate.  The boys give themselves entirely to the drops of water "which pleasures us everywhere." They are in Eden. But it is an Eden frozen in time, and from which they will too soon be expelled. 

Fast forward several pages and decades, and we have "Second Marriage Polka."  Once more we have an energetic gathering, but this time it is of middle-aged men and women who are celebrating a social occasion, a marriage. Again, there is focus on the body and movement. Stanza II describes the brother and his sister, the speaker's bride. Both move with lyrical grace, in unison to the clapping of the family. In sharp contrast is the speaker, who is clumsy and painfully self-conscious of his inept attempts to dance the polka with his new wife.

The dance is the central metaphor of this poem, symbolizing interaction with the "other" and the necessity of negotiation and accommodation to one's partner--in dance and in marriage.  The husband is depicted as a bird “whose dopey feet” restrain the wife and itself from flight. Yet slowly, "to the wheezing of the accordion," she comes to him  with "flaxen glow," and he receives her loveliness and grace. He is transformed into a penguin "astonished with flight."  Then she, Anima (light), and he Animus (shadow), move together in apocalyptic union of body and spirit, man and wife.

The challenges and intricacies of the dance were introduced earlier in "Square Dancing with Sister Robert Claire." She earns her masculine stripes by decking a student, the wise-mouth Kel, who mouths off at her. In response, she puts all her weight against his chin and the force of the blow brings him crashing to the floor. The physical portrait of Sister Robert Claire is comically unflattering. She is an unattractive mass of flesh, "pie faced" and "lumpy-looking," cloaked, and clothed in a "floor length habit with dozen of folds" and "hidden pockets." With rosary beads around her waist "big as marbles," she waddles down the aisles "like a wooly toad." One week she drags the young men into the gym. They literally shed their formal clothes, and symbolically she does the same. And reveals her inner self!  When she dances with the boys, the habit that defines and confines her is transformed into a billowing gown, and suddenly she is no longer nun, but woman. With body enlivened and "face aglow," she teaches the boys how to move together, and the more difficult and important lesson of "letting go."

Sister Lard Ass, unlike Sister Robert Claire, is a nun clearly invested in the masculine hierarchy. In "Sister Lard Ass and the Squirt Gun," she is portrayed basically as a male in female drag. The boys demean her with the nickname Lard Ass, but at the outset of this poem, it is she who physically and psychologically gains the upper hand by humiliating a boy called Weed with a succession of slaps, and the closer: "Let that be a lesson to you, Mister!" The boys' initial response is somewhere between "horrified and hilarious," which soon turns into compassion. Then "two good Samaritan wise guys" throw guns over to Weed to allow him to wash away, and cleanse, the shame from his cheeks. The poem ends in a stunning theological inversion. For it is they, the "mortal sinners," who congregate "like devils" to unmask the evil Sister Lard Ass, and rise glorious--not demeaned nor damned--in the "moment of simple grace."

 In contrast to Sister Lard Ass, whose brutal slap-slap-slap reveals her as too eager oppressor, is the speaker's mother, who raises a rosy, robust finger in defiance of the Catholic Church which denies her the sacrament of second marriage.

        My Mother, Widowed with 5 Children
        and Soon to Re-Marry at the Age of 49,
        Is Denied the Marriage Sacrament for
        Planning to Use Birth Control and So
        Confronts Her Faith
 
        I don't care if it rains or freezes—
        I am in the arms of Jesus.
 
        I am Jesus' little lamb—
        You can bet your celibate ass I am.

The most intimate and painful poems, however, explore the speaker's difficult relationship with his father. "Boss's Son" depicts the conflict of the young man's ambivalent struggle to achieve independence from his father and still command his attention and love. The speaker relates how he earns the respect of his co-workers, who are employees of his father. They are opposite of himself, a college student, and his father, with "soft hands and ties." At night he is the boy, but at work he becomes the man who works harder than they do, and after payday hangs out with them, and sees a "logger bite off a chunk /of a guy’s cheek." The poem ends with a series of unresolved questions and painful, honest admissions:  

        What did he wonder about me living so hard,
        trying to prove myself to everyone but him?
        It was one more thing between us
        I couldn't explain and he wouldn’t understand. 
        I wanted the world to love me, I suppose,
        on its own rough terms,
        but I wanted him to love me, too,
        for whatever man I was or was trying to be,
        for the first time not in the name of the father
        but some pilgrim who could be any man's son.

The pilgrimage, however, takes him not to the New Jerusalem, but to the V.A. Hospital, where his father, victim of an aneurysm, will spend the rest of his days. In "Visiting Hours at the VA Hospital," the speaker describes in painstaking detail the swift and total deterioration and degradation of the father. One can imagine on the doorway of this "No Man's Land," Dante's chilling: “Abandon Hope all Ye who Enter Here.”  Here the father endures, and the family must witness, "Third Class Sorryass Care where antiseptic fogs / a sour suffocation like the word's worst body odor / drenched with the world’s smelliest perfume." His father is condemned to be alone "in the last bed he would know, / with sheepskin pad for bedsores an inch deep," and the body  "retreating into infancy." Doomed to be a prisoner in a cell, the father becomes part of an anonymous mass of dying bodies, pathetically staring beyond "locked windows just above their heads."

In "In the Year I'm as Old as My Father Ever Was" the father and his memory are resurrected in an intriguing poem that moves from uneasy playfulness to sadness and loss. Here, the poet sees the father in a totally new dimension: not as remote and austere parent, nor as authoritarian boss, but as a "beautiful whistler," one (not unlike his poet son) who created music of the complicated kind, "worthy of an orchestra."

But the airy lightness of the first stanza descends to earth and the gravitas of the grave. The speaker asks in a mixture of curiosity and anger: "What kind of man whistles that way?" And the answer comes not from the father's workplace, but the home, where he is at the "cellar workbench," or "watering the lawn." The new ghost, however, is sadly familiar, and offers "no new answers for those days / when we both had nothing to say."

But Halfway Decent Sinners provides an affirmative answer to the negation of the previous lines. For in this book there is not silence, but a wonderful mixture of voices--bitter, angry, resentful, defiant, optimistic, passionate, loving--engaged in a variety of conversations--between friends, schoolmates, relatives, children, parents, and wives.And the origin of all these conversations, and quarrels, is the deepest and richest--between the speaker and himself. For as Yeats reminds us: "Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric, but out of our quarrel with ourselves, poetry."

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