HOMETOWN, USACoal City Review

by Brian Daldorph

Michael Cleary grew up in Glens Falls, New York, and now lives in Plantation, Florida, and the poems of Hometown, USA richly evoke Cleary’s experiences of these two places. The emphasis is on Glens Falls, the subject of a six-part profile in LOOK Magazine in 1944 entitled, “Hometown, USA.” The articles claim that Glens Falls (pop. 19,000) is the archetypal American town, and therefore study of it will reveal truths about American society at a time of major changes. Cleary makes a similar assumption, though his focus for the most part is on home truth rather than American truth. He plays off the LOOK article throughout his collection, including photographs and extracts from the article, often with the purpose of challenging their pat conclusions.

According to the LOOK article, “In Glens Falls are those elements of life we have come to know as American. Before the Revolution, its founders carved a home out of the wilderness and fought to protect it from Indians. Its pioneers wrested from forest and stream the wood and water power to build industry. Its trade marks are known all over the world. Glens Falls has given to the nation statesmen of international fame. Its sons have fought in every American war. Glens Falls contains in microcosm, every aspect of the American Idea, every potential for achievement of the American Ideal.”

Cleary’s first poem here, “Glens Falls Hill: Paperrouting,” is a welcome antidote to LOOK’s Whitmania. It’s a boy’s-eye view of the city:

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.
Twenty-one was The Old Irish Inn
where baggy men wandered the porch
in a restless daze,
waiting for meals served family style.
Thirty-four was The Economy Store
(“On the Hill, But on the Level”)—
best chinos and desert boots in town.
Paperboys could charge there,
but your father had to sign.
Forty-four and I’d stop counting,
The Sugar Bowl balanced on the crest:
in noisy booths we’d nurse cherry cokes
and junior high pride
and orders of homemade gravy and fries.

Cleary’s loving, precise evocation is, perhaps, a poet’s version of that “American Ideal” which LOOK trumpeted. Images are carefully crafted—“the newspaperpiled Schwinn,” the “baggy men” of the Old Irish Inn, for example—and I like the witty parody of the American Dream realized at last, after a long haul, in The Sugar Bowl. This poem, like most of the poems here, is very likeable. Their good humor is as attractive as homemade gravy and fries.

Cleary’s poems about his father are often jagged and discomforting though. As epigraphs to his poem, “My Mother Wonders, What Do I Have To Do Before You Write About Me? Die?”, Cleary quotes his father, “I got news for you, Santa Claus is long gone,/ and no one else in this world gives you something for nothing,” and his mother, “If you try, love,/ sometimes you can get something from nothing much.” American Pessimism, American Optimism? Perhaps, but I’m most drawn to the poem because of its sympathetic characterizations of the father, a cynical salesman numbed to the dreariness of his existence “buying drinks all around, kissing ass when he had to/cracking the same bad jokes in the same sad bars/until he almost forgot how much to hate it,” and the mother who works for a week transforming bloody feathers from Pepper’s Turkey Farm into a magnificent Halloween Day Apache headdress, setting the young boy “whooping and prancing fearsome through the night.” Cleary has a dramatist’s touch for bringing his characters to life.

Though the real strength of this collection is its “home truth,” Cleary’s broader perspective is striking, too. “Halfway Brook” is an outstanding poem in which he traces the history of a body of water he played by as a boy when it was called Hovey’s Pond, riding blocks of ice down the icehouse loading chute into the pond. Before it was Hovey’s Pond, a brickyard stood on the northern end; before this, at the time of the Revolution, “it was good-for-nothing/marsh on Walter Briggs’ farm.” Cleary looks back through the portal of the pond to times before the French and Indian War when “Indian trails wound through uncut forest.” After this retrospective, Cleary turns forward to the optimistic 1950s, when the world, made safe for democracy, shone like sunlit water. But new threats were just beneath the surface of the “long summer days” of that decade: “More patient than winter,/The Cold War waited/our turn/to come out and play.” This sort of ominous reminder of the threats all around Hometown gives this collection a real weight that prevents nostalgic wallowing. In fact, Hometown, USA, ends on this note in the epilogue, “Glens Falls: Twenty-Five Years Later,” with Cleary stepping outside his “safe as memory” hometown: “Life would get more absurd and reckless, we found,/and more chilling than we thought it could be.”

Cleary’s achievement in Hometown, USA is to make his American experience both compellingly particular and universal. It’s a considerable achievement.

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