Bruce Thomas Boehrer
in small-town America can turn at any moment into a kind of intellectual
seppuku. It does not have to, of course, but there is
always the possibility that it will: that the town itself will
replace the world in one’s imagination and that the town’s
values and rhythms will come to invalidate other sorts of experience.
Michael Cleary’s first book of poetry [Hometown,
USA] which focuses mostly upon his youth in upstate
New York, consequently risks this same universalization of the
parochial; by and large, however, the author’s discipline
and maturity rescue the work.
does achieve a universality of vision in his verse, but he does
so most successfully by making the outside world continually impinge
upon Glens Falls, rather than by allowing Glens Falls to gobble
up the world. The poem “Halfway Brook,” for instance,
presents Cleary’s hometown as, in fact, a series of different
places with different meanings, all manufactured by disparate
events and sedimented upon one another so as momentarily to produce
something the poet could call home:
The French and Indian War
made a killing ground of the road
between Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Edward,
Indian trails wound through uncut forest.
When there was peace,
they traded furs, hardened pots on open fires.
When there was war,
the trails made an easy ambush.
At dawn, captives were led to Blind Rock
where the ceremony of pain would outlast the day.
Tortured screams and burning flesh
carried for miles in the mountain air.
moments, buried in the substrata of the town’s historical
experience, nonetheless re-emerge to populate Cleary’s own
lives seemed endless,
the sunblessed hours
of long summer days.
More patient than winter,
The Cold War waited
to come out and play.
by the end of “Halfway Brook,” Cleary has come to
view both the town and himself as being informed by transpersonal
and transgeographical forces. Likewise, the poet describes his
father as a product of broad historical experiences that imprint
themselves upon intimate personal events:
remember him tense, brown eyes brooding,
his solemn expression defining the word Father,
all traces of childishness drawn from his face
by the Depression, then the war, then five kids,
the world turning forever serious, all business,
a lifetime of bosses and worry and work
until Halloween birthdays must have seemed a mockery.
as a sequence of poems progresses to describe Cleary’s own
eventual marriage and fatherhood and departure from Glens Falls,
the poet himself repeats this dynamic of cultural imprinting while
trying, through his verse, to make sense of it and find his own
identity within it:
far we’ve come,
this need to untangle change
Even the best of us
have a bone to pick
with the ghost of days gone by.
Familiar stories mingle with new lies….
mingling of “familiar stories” and “new lies”—a
sense that the familiar and the foreign are intimately connected—comprises
one of the best features of Cleary’s work.
when at its best, Cleary’s poetry is lucid, illuminating,
and unpretentiously eloquent. However, not all the poems succeed
equally, and it is perhaps worth considering why they do not.
The most interesting feature of Hometown, USA’s
shortcomings is that they tend to involve the most attractive
of human sentiments—expressions of love, loyalty, gratitude,
appreciation, etc. When writing nostalgically of a grade-school
day trip for instance, he remarks that “We took as gospel
what the nuns and Mr. Cooper said./Visions of tomahawks and muskets
danced in our heads.” Cleary is smart enough to have written
this on purpose; it is certainly hard to imagine the cliché
“took as gospel” and the echo of “The Night
Before Christmas” as anything less than a conscious effort
to reproduce the supposed innocence and simplicity of childhood.
But even if one doesn’t—as I do—suspect the
idea of childhood innocence to be itself a cliché of sorts,
one has to wonder whether such an idea can be compellingly represented
through such language. Again, when he describes himself as a child
on Halloween, “Warpainted with lipstick streaks,/…the
crown prince among hobgoblins,” he expresses the tenderest
of sentiments, while making this reader, at least, genuinely ashamed
to have ever harbored any affection whatsoever for the past.
short, I believe Cleary would be rather better as a poet if he
were a little nastier as a person. This view is admittedly risky
to adopt: in the event, Cleary may already be literary America’s
answer to Bluebeard, and if he is not, he may not aspire to such
distinction in the service of his muse. But Hometown,
USA is sufficiently successful—and sufficiently
impressive as a debut performance—to make me hope that Cleary
will continue to develop his vision and technique in the future.
If he makes his poems (to use Renaissance satirical parlance)
a little less toothless, Cleary will be worth watching closely
for years to come. In any event, his work is worth reading now.