Face, by Brendan Cleary, Pighog, 70pp, ISBN: 978-1906309442
Face, Brendan Cleary’s eighth full collection of poems, marks no major deviation from his established style: readers familiar with his work will recognise the terse colloquial language, the run-on lines, the immersion in the detail of the everyday. Cleary is a master of the mundane. Not content with just a betting slip, he supplies the dog’s name too, and its odds. He will not ornament or occlude the bare reality of a scene: the rainswept greyhound track, the Whitecliff Inn in Carrickfergus, the Little Wing fast food restaurant next to the hospital ward. There are entire worlds contained in these choices of detail.
Where his new collection departs is in its elegiac structure and tone. As becomes clear in the course of the first, titular poem, “Face” was his brother’s nickname. His brother is now dead, it is revealed, having collapsed one morning in his back yard “near the bin / with the hedge clippings”. In this first powerful poem, divided into twelve parts, Cleary lays out the sense of his own grief with an immediacy that makes it difficult to read. Each short section sits alone on a page surrounded by blank space that seems pointedly empty, uncomforting. Each word feels more exposed as a result. It is an astonishingly wrought, punishing account of sudden loss.
This staggering poem opens the first of the three sections into which the collection is divided. The first section is in effect an extended lament for his brother, framed as a series of recollections. Some of these are derived from his own memories of “Face” or “Facey” or, on the odd occasion, “Martin”. He recalls playing football in Buckna with his brother and losing 14-1, or the two of them together watching Nicholas Anelka and John Terry miss consecutive penalties, handing Manchester United the 2008 Champion’s League Final. But his memories of “Facey” are just as often refracted through others, mutual friends, relatives, regulars from regular pubs, or – in one particularly moving poem – some “English buddies” whom he calls to convey the news:
& knowing you’d like it,
some boys in Burton on Trent
were raisin’ their glasses
to your spirit
& great crack
& your gentle manner.
Aye English buddies
who loved you
who couldn’t tell
just how lonely you were
in those last days.
Aye those English lads
raisin’ their glasses.
The second section of the book, “In Company”, opens with another funeral, that of Tommy Killen, a mutual friend. Here the collection diverges from the specifics of his brother’s death and its aftermath. This second sequence includes a number of poems dealing with memory; many are dedicated to women from his past. One describes an interaction with a Russian stranger drinking a can of beer on a bench in Brighton, who takes out and shows a crumpled photo of the wife and two children he has left behind. This sequence – at first sight seeming to mark a rupture in the book’s pattern – continues to be haunted by thoughts of loss, mortality, and the strangeness of the past. The women he describes are ghostly, distant. He is still at this point, I think, dealing with his brother’s death, placing it in context. This is most obvious in the haunting poem “At the Track”, in which his father and his brother and all the women he’s ever slept with return from the dead. This is a kind of otherworldly phantasmagoria, something like the great party at the end of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, only utterly quotidian, utterly lacking in a sense of transcendence: the dead assemble on the wet track of a greyhound stadium. Cleary is here allaying his grief, embedding it in the continuation of day-to-day life.
This is a traditional feature of elegiac poetry, and in fact the collection overall seems to follow a looseely elegiac pattern. Traditional elegies are often tripartite, opening with a lament and ending with some sort of consolation. There are glimpses of this consolation in “The Ward”, the third sequence of the collection, though they are tempered, to say the least. “The Ward” includes some of the strongest single poems in the collection, including one about a barista who smiles at him in a Café Nero, where he’s ordering coffee between ward visits. Or another in which he crosses Ann Street, returning to the ward, bringing with him “the faintest trace of the new spring”. These are the moments of solace, but they are hardly unequivocal:
The girls next to me are on the phone
trying to book some sunbeds.
Trains will be pulling out, buses too.
Nearly everything is in place.
Or so I convince myself
as the wind cuts in, umbrellas sway
& I worry about this skin graft
& whether you’ll eat your toast tonight.
These lines exemplify something of Cleary’s style. The scene described is utterly ordinary. What little joy is to be had is parsimoniously doled out, it feels, in full knowledge that it cannot last. No illusions on this are to be entertained. Yet joy there is. Life goes on. That is the source of his poetry: going on.
His human scenery straddles England and Ireland. Cleary has spent time in both the north and southeast of England: in his poetry he offers us glimpses of the grim realities of emigrant Irish experience, often, these days, glossed over. Certainly in Ireland we hear more about affluent graduate expats, working in media or graphic design, than about those whose outcomes are less happy: a conventional piece of Irish up-sell. Cleary’s poetry contains, on the contrary, the experience of real privation, alcoholism and loneliness. It speaks to a much broader and more long-standing reality, one we in Ireland perhaps don’t want to hear. This may be the reason Cleary’s poetry has not yet managed a return. He has been published over the years exclusively by English presses. A dedicatee of small press culture himself, and an acclaimed poetry teacher, he has had pamphlets and collections published by Bloodaxe, tall-lighthouse, Pighog Press and his own Echo Rooms Press, which he established alongside the magazine of the same name, dedicated to northern urban poetry, which appeared through the late ’80s and early ’90s and is still highly regarded by a generation of English poets. Over the course of the last three decades he has attracted a small dedicated audience in London and the southeast among whom his reputation is cemented.
It is not hard to see why. He has cultivated over time a distinctive concision. Judicious use of colloquial detail anchors his poetry so that it feels riveted to the page. These throwaway details – the price of a bottle of Sainsbury’s Basic, the pebbledash fireplace in his brother’s front room – act as a brace against futility. They mask but also defy the unspoken. Similarly his poems use colloquial syntaxes, following the ramble of human speech patterns, resisting any sense of the “poetic”. Hence Face, his elegy, is utterly unelegiac in tone and register. It’s this that makes it work, at its best, so effectively.
Which is not always. Often the power of Cleary’s poetry comes from the transfiguration of some concluding effect, some incidental detail which, through its foregrounding, gives us a sideways glance at the suppressed or traumatic core which underlies it. This is a powerful device, but occasionally an unwieldy one. Sometimes the transfiguration doesn’t come off: the detail is unconvincing, or strikes a bum note, and the tone of the poem as a result is undermined. This is the challenge Cleary sets himself, and it is a demanding one: to find the exact right – incidental – detail. If it is not the exact right detail, it jars.
In some cases the poetry never even gets beyond the incidental. For instance in “The Name is Frank,” he riffs on the name of a failed horse he has backed, when it suddenly dawns on him:
How could I ever doubt
The name is Frank
Frank was always the name
Frank in the fields of sun
Frank in the tavern
Frank riding his bicyle.
There is no pay-off for the reader in this sort of inconclusive whimsy. A similar effect is obtained in poems like “Scott Kipling”, in which the narrator muses on the signs propped up at the arrivals gate at Gatwick Airport. Other poems in the collection suffer from a sense of sameness, a repetition of effects. This might be unavoidable in a style so idiosyncratic, cultivated over decades to generate poetry of at times an almost unbearable intensity: self-lacerating, unforgiving, utterly disillusioned. What’s more, these poems are rare exceptions in a collection otherwise distinguished by the visceral sense of the poet’s conviction.
Cleary’s is a poetry of specifics that is, contradictorily, full of ellipses. His language is clear, full of localised detail, proper nouns, place names, brand names, the names of pubs. Yet any sense of wider significance is consistently deferred. His poetry is marked with an air of philosophical reflectiveness from which the narrator constantly deflects as if from an intuition too painful or immense for contemplation. The reader is immersed instead in a world of football and bookies and cheap booze and spliffs. This is a world with some affinities, surely, to the traditions of poetic intoxication: Shelley, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas. Not that Cleary’s world is at all glamorised. Instead, each joint or can of Super feels like some statement of resistance, an itemisation of squalor thrown in the face of a more encompassing bleakness. Cleary’s poetry is full of a refusal of idealism, a refusal to engage in the delusions of the poetic. This gives his poetry a philosophical effect of real power – not heroic, nor despairing exactly, and not the simple hard-boiled effect of the pointlessly pared back. On the contrary, this poetry feels harrowed. Cleary is a writer with a powerful sense of bleakness, but equally a feel for the ways in which we simply carry on. This dual effect is what distinguishes his work. When, as in Face, it is used in the service of elegy, it makes for poetry of compulsive emotional force.
Nathan Hugh O'Donnell is a fiction writer and currently editor of the Irish journal of contemporary art criticism, PVA. He completed a PhD in Trinity College last year, where he continues to teach, and has had stories and articles published in The Manchester Review, New Irish Writing, The South Circular, and We Are Dublin, amongst others. His first novel, Letters to Lucy, was a winner of the 2014 Novel Fair at the Irish Writers' Centre.