It being Sunday, we’ve all got time to consider and ponder things at greater length than during the working week, yes? If it’s good enough for the Sunday papers, it’s good enough for this guest blogger. So here’s the review section…
Actually, it’s my introduction to a book published last year, Goin’ Down Slow: selected poems of Brendan Cleary. But the book has received no attention here in the north of Ireland and little enough in the poetry press in Britain – Brendan has always been an émigré Irish writer – so I thought posting this here might give us something to chew over and redress that balance a little.
Unemployed world citizen: the poetry of Brendan Cleary
Like many others, I first encountered the poetry of Brendan Cleary in the pages of the Echo Room, one of the most inflential of the small press magazines that seemed to thrive, all post-punk cheapskate energy, in the Thatcherite mid-1980s. It felt almost miraculous to me that such a publication existed, let alone found its way to Belfast: in fact, its editor, Cleary himself, distributed the copies to bookshops while on visits home to Northern Ireland – the motherland not quite celebrated in many of the poems here:
It’s a long way home again
to the Railway Tavern, Carrickfergus
where, rambling to the microphone,
Slim brawls out in broad Belfast,
‘Anyone here from the Shankill?
Here’s one for them –
Bridge over Troubled Water.’
(‘Country Night at the Railway Tavern’)
I submitted poems to the magazine, had them accepted, and I met the editor on one of his samizdat-distribution trips in 86 or 87. It was a Good Friday, the pubs here didn’t open until the evening, we bought beer and drank it in the park. Many people drank in parks in those days.
The voices in the Echo Room spoke from across these islands, but in the hubbub felt like a shared sense of the purpose of writing: not as an academic exercise or a pursuit of aesthetic sophistication or – worst of all – a therapuetic confessional, but as a dissection and expression of the felt culture of the present. Posterity be damned, said the Echo Room: tell us what it’s like where you are. So the poems and short prose and artworks were often anecdotal, scrappy, disposable, not wholly realised; but they were also sudden, vivid, angry, funny. They spoke in a language you recognised from life, not books, or recognised from books you’d discovered for yourself and not the ones teachers had shoved down your throat. You were never sure where you were in the Echo Room but, to pinch a phrase from Cleary, it was definitely Earth:
So when they asked me on their forms if I was Irish or British,
I answered ‘World Citizen’ & they threatened to strip me
& they hoked through the 3 cases I was trailing home from Saltburn.
‘An unemployed World Citizen, you’re some boy’.
Alongside copies of the magazine, you could sometimes pick up one or other of Cleary’s pamphlet collections, say 1985’s ‘Tears in the Burger Store’ or 1990’s ‘White Bread and ITV’. Many of the poems included here from The Irish Card first appeared in pamphlet form, and it’s an approach Cleary continues to take: themes, personae, situations are dramatised and re-dramatised from a range of perspectives, then succeeded by another block of poems in a different voice. The larger-scale collections after The Irish Card (Sacrilege, Stranger in the House, Weightless, Some Turbulent Weather…) are architecturally informed by the pamphlets in which their poems first appeared, or by being built from a number of sequences of poems. And the sequence rather than the series of free-standing lyric poems is Cleary’s natural home.
The Irish Card gathers poems from early pamphlets into its first half, but its weight and thrust lies in the title sequence which occupies the latter half of the book, a meditation on growing up in the north of Ireland in the 1970s and moving like so many others did to begin adult life on ‘the mainland’ ‘across the water’ (which may be the troubled water Slim was singing about in the Railway Tavern.) The sequence’s energy comes from a two-pronged dismantling of received ideas of emigration. First, the role of Irishman abroad can be tried on, customised, but ultimately abandoned because, of course, the place left is never left absolutely and can’t be romanticised when it’s only a ferry crossing away:
There’s nothing vaguely romantic to leave behind,
just the graffiti sprawl of miserable Larne,
the ignoble funnels and towers of Ballylumford …
… Let’s face it, I came here to escape bad blood.
But Cleary takes on the formal as well as the substantial falsehood of the émigré predicament as it took shape in the 80s and 90s. Often pigeonholed as a ‘performance poet’, it is important to see the performative in Cleary as the product of a very particular time and place. The Irishman who feels obliged to say, half in, half out of character in Brighton after the bomb, ‘Don’t look at me, I didn’t plant it’ (‘Brighton’) has no room for the sentimental patriotic ballad, the old saccharine and pastiche and rebel bombast. Instead, the romantic Irish lyric mode finds itself put through the mangle. Cleary can be read as a twitchy descendant of Tom Moore or Percy French but in place of ‘Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight…’ we have Newcastle-upon-Tyne as a Benidorm where
…safe sex hasn’t been invented
& all the bars tonight were hivin’
& the sky’s the colour of sun tan lotion
& I’d give a million to be so neutral
& everywhere has become a haze
of free offers & tabloid slogans
. . .
& there will never be an armed uprising
against the Capitalist Conspiracy here
or anywhere else…
(‘Newcastle is Benidorm’)
The Irish émigré ‘stand-up’ poet (the late Bill Matthews once defined poetry readings as ‘stand-up tragedy’) takes the place vacated by the balladeer as much as that opened by the ‘alternative comedian’ (and how dated that phrase seems now.) And the 1990s stand up doesn’t do jokes, or one-liners, or even punchlines, although sometimes he’s tempted –
Kylie, your face soothes my fears
you touch me in places
I’ve touched myself in for years.
(‘Kylie be mine’)
He lets the world in and out, he takes its pulse, he mutters in its doorways or lashes out at it like a flatmate whose temper has finally snapped:
look at the state of your eyes, Eddie
do you have a heart
or only a hard-on?
why is it always the same sob-story
about giros lost or overdue.
In performance (standing up, as it were) the poems fizz and wheedle and bully and cry and flatter and show off. Their speakers address lovers or friends with a kind of strained affection, the way the poetry itself seems to address the planet: as if patience is wearing thin on all sides, but there have been good times as well as bad. The title sequence in The Irish Card remembers the poet’s father fondly, sadly; other, later poems celebrate the gifts left by dead musicians (Marc Bolan, Rory Gallagher) dead friends, and the note of elegy or valediction hums softly in the background of even the most comic or anecdotal of the poems here:
The glittering girls
might want you
but you can’t stay here.
This isn’t a soup kitchen.
Staggering in here half-pissed
spending the heart of the day
drooling behind 8 balls.
You definitely can’t stay.
You’re withered, Henry.
You’re flaking away.
on the bedroom window
& soft fine rain over
the flyover’s glare
I tumble to one side
of your hungry kiss
mesmerized by cars
chasing the dawn
like death itself.
If the earlier poems in Goin’ Down Slow have a de-romanticising thrust, at least as far as the tropes of exile and Irishness are concerned, later poems like that last remind us that Cleary is in crucial ways a lyricist in the Romantic – maybe even the troubadour – tradition. Songs and vignettes of failed and failing love, more or less in propria persona, form the core of the pamphlets and larger collections since 2001’s Stranger in the House:
I want to act as a translator
for these hearts here on London Road
pain swirling in the traffic
but I stay quiet conjuring your face
(‘In the Neighbourhood’)
But what sets Cleary apart from others on what I sometimes think of as the independent fringe (poets like Cork’s Gerry Murphy, for example) is not the unabashed romanticism of his love poems, or the impact of a stand up aesthetic on that romanticism. The impact of émigré status on the accent of the poems establishes the key for almost every poem in this selection. Like any emigrant or exile, certain local tones and lexical choices are subdued or flattened in an effort to fit in, while others are heightened, even exagerrated, as if to announce and protect difference. It’s a longstanding shame that Cleary is not better known in Ireland, or acknowledged as an Irish poet. I know of only two anthologies since 1985 that include examples of his work. But the émigré voice, the stand up attack, the undeniable if problematic romanticism of his outlook and his subjects all set him at (at least) one remove from the dominant modes of his homeland. But perhaps the publication of Goin’ Down Slow will help mend matters…
How then to sum up the poems in this overdue selection? Small sad movies? Slow blues that build themselves into sudden jagged riffs, or a punk thrash that segues without warning into soul? Curtis Mayfield sings down the phone to the Samaritans about old Instamatic snapshots whose colours, always just slightly unreal, have mutated with years of lying in the back of a Formica-lined drawer into unthinkable tones that remind you just how odd and far away the past is.
Or just read them for yourself, and listen.