Glens Falls, NY
Michael Cleary will be back
in Glens Falls for a reading at the Hyde
long-standing lie is that poetry is effeminate. High schoolers
roll their eyes and cough up “yucks” and adamantly
don’t get it.
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.”
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.
think that a poem, like a good athlete, has grace and power,”
Cleary said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Plantation,
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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” …
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”…
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”…
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
“Hometown” poems, Quirk said, “are real. There’s
an honesty to them. There’s nothing effete or dilettantish.
poems are so accessible. One of the tragedies for modern poets
is that their poems are so esoteric.”
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,”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
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
is about a growing up of somebody through these stages,”
Cleary said. “The good and the bad.
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.”