Glens Falls, NY

Hometown Poet

by Tamara Dietrich
Features Editor

Writer Michael Cleary will be back
in Glens Falls for a reading at the Hyde

The long-standing lie is that poetry is effeminate. High schoolers roll their eyes and cough up “yucks” and adamantly don’t get it.

Better they should read Michael Cleary, a Glens Fallsian born and bred. In high school Cleary was a jock of such high caliber he once inspired a sports writer to poetry, himself. Today he’s an award-winning writer who dispels the lie that poetry is obscure or all “roses and sunsets.”

In Cleary’s work, blood, lust and loss blend with humor, passion and innocence in proportions appropriate to a man’s life. They’re elegant and elemental and brawny at the same time, a running back in action, a guard bracing for the long shot.

“I think that a poem, like a good athlete, has grace and power,” Cleary said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Plantation, FL.

A selection of Cleary’s poems just has been released by the San Diego Poets Press as its 1992 American Book Series Choice. Hometown, USA recalls scenes from the author’s childhood in Glens Falls, scenes that echo the LOOK Magazine series in 1944 that declared Glens Falls a “typical U.S. Hometown.”

Photographs and quotes from the magazine are interspersed throughout. Even the book’s cover has a local connection: a painting by local artist Shirley Patton, entitled “View North on Glen St., Glens Falls, NY, in 1955.”

Inside, Cleary, 46, offers up slices of his boyhood, chasing the ice wagon “in the wooly days of summer…a trail of puddles and hooves/clanging through the neighborhood”…running his paper route when “once upon a time,/buildings were stacked clear to the top;/I’d push my newspaperpiled Schwinn/up the beanstalk sidewalk,/head ducked under the wind,/counting the climb on parking meters”…a family gathering at a lake, “clams, chicken, sweet potatoes, corn…a gang of uncles around a foaming keg—/Washtubs sparkling with Nehis and ice—/More cousins than you could count.”

A local landmark comes under wry attack in “Why I Hate Fenimore Cooper and Don’t Go to Church, Religiously,” a witty poem with a sly rhyme scheme describing a class trip down the now-defunct spiral staircase to Cooper’s Cave—and the sexual graffiti and paraphernalia there that “drove the nuns into a red-faced rage.”

Not to be undone by sentiment or drippy nostalgia, Cleary balances out Age of Innocence stuff with recollections of his Uncle Jack, the club boxer: “once he sparred with Willie Pep,/said he never saw the jabs, a hundred, maybe more,/but could hear the dull popping of leather,/feel them banging inside his head,/could taste them when he swallowed blood” …

…of his father, bed-ridden and stuporous after a stroke, the smell of ammonia in his hospital room, “a face gone gray with surrender,/brittle body nurtured by tubes,/stubborn insides gurgling into plastic bags”…

…horses falling through the ice in a January crossing of Lake Champlain, “a hoof cracks through the ice like a shot,/then hoof after hoof exploding,/horses slammed to their knees/in a tangle of harness and reins,/a nightmare of brutal genuflections/that disappears in a crash, a splash”…

…boys about to begin the annual clubbing of a surplus population of rabbits “feel the tingle of violence/…proud and fearful on the edge of a man’s world/…they find the fierce and ancient fury/in heavy thuds and hollow cracks/and the rabbits start to go down.”

Cleary came to poetry in his early 30s, after teaching English for several years at Queensbury High School, then leaving to pursue a doctorate in English at Middle Tennessee State University. He now teaches English at Broward Community College in Ft. Lauderdale.

He said he doesn’t consider his 20s his “lost years” in terms of poetry. Rather, he said, a poet just gets more interesting with age, abandoning the “public bleeding” that young poets tend to offer up.

With time, the depth of feeling is still there, he said, but “the craft of the thing becomes very important. The longer you stay at it, you use devices to get at the feeling. The last thing you want to get at in the poem is the nature of that feeling. Something jumps out at you, a bubble just bursts.”

It takes Cleary several weeks to get from idea to finished product. “The rough drafts are so embarrassing,” he said. “You can’t judge yourself by the beginning of a work; it sounds like prose, and I really don’t know where it’s going. The closest thing to it is sculpture. You have this big piece of marble, one move leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. You trust that process. You have to learn to trust that process.”

His mother, Betty Sovetts, and sister Eileen Greene still live in Glens Falls. His poems reflect his rambunctious, Irish-Catholic upbringing, family gatherings around an “Irish kitchen table,” the bonds still strong with the friends of his youth, men with names like Jake, Boom-Boom, and Skunk.

One of his strongest connections is with John Quirk, just retired as chairman of the English Department at Queensbury. When Cleary came on board at Queensbury, Quirk was singled out to be his mentor. “Rather than being his mentor,” Quirk said, “we became best friends.”

Cleary’s “Hometown” poems, Quirk said, “are real. There’s an honesty to them. There’s nothing effete or dilettantish.

“His poems are so accessible. One of the tragedies for modern poets is that their poems are so esoteric.”

Cleary said that accessibility is deliberate. “I’m put off by the stuff that’s so obscure that it’s a challenge to the reader. Like you’re being left out of a joke,” he said.

“The biggest compliment I ever got was from a student who said, “You’re the first smart person I ever met who spoke plain.’ I was more flattered than that student will ever know.”

Cleary acknowledged that his childhood in Glens Falls was a happy one; his work, though also reflects the dark undercurrents that sensitive souls pick up with their unerring interior antennae.

A recurring theme in Cleary’s work is his relationship with his father, who suffered a stroke when Cleary was 22 and died two years later. It was an unresolved father-son relationship that the son eventually learned to resolve through poetry.

“I hadn’t been a model kid,” Cleary said. “I was a little bit wild, as a lot of kids were. I don’t think he ever knew if I was gonna be a saint or a criminal.”

Then came the stroke with its “terrible reversal of father-son,” he said. “I think I worked my way through that, being fathered and then becoming a father.”

Because “Hometown” includes work about his own two children, Cleary said the publishers designed the cover, the package, as something of a biography, which disturbed him at first.

Then he looked at the three photographs on the book cover, showing him at an elfin 8 years old, as a handsome graduating senior and then a photo from this year, and he realized the publishers were right.

“This is about a growing up of somebody through these stages,” Cleary said. “The good and the bad.

“As you write about yourself, you write about your times. LOOK Magazine knew that when it did the series. It wasn’t meant to be sociological, but it turned out to be sociological.”


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