HOMETOWN, USAApalachee Quarterly

Reviews: Hometown, USA

by Bruce Thomas Boehrer

Life 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.

Cleary 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.

Such moments, buried in the substrata of the town’s historical experience, nonetheless re-emerge to populate Cleary’s own understanding:

Our lives seemed endless,
the sunblessed hours
of long summer days.
More patient than winter,
The Cold War waited
our turn
to come out and play.

Thus, 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:

I 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.

And 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:

However far we’ve come,
this need to untangle change
never changes.
Even the best of us
have a bone to pick
with the ghost of days gone by.
Familiar stories mingle with new lies….

This 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.

Indeed, 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.

In 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.

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