Like many others, I first encountered the poetry of Brendan Cleary in the pages of the Echo Room, one of the most influential of the small press magazines that seemed to thrive, all post-punk cheapskate energy, in the Thatcherite mid-1980’s. 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 copies to bookshops while on visits home to Northern Ireland – the motherland not quite celebrated in many of his early poems.
I submitted poems to the magazine, had them accepted, and 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 the park in those days.
The voices in the Echo Room spoke from across these islands, but in the hubbub felt like a shared sense of purpose of writing: not as an academic exercise or a pursuit of aesthetic sophistication or worst of all – a therapeutic 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. 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 hooked 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 in his first full collection, The Irish Card, originally appeared in pamphlet form, and it's the 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 editions after The Irish Card are architecturally informed by the pamphlets in which their poems first appeared, or by being built by 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 1970's and moving like so many others did to begin adult life on 'the mainland' 'across the water'. 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 & 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 80's and 90's. 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 are 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 1990's 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.
If Cleary's early poems have a de-romanticising thrust, at least as far as the troops of exile and Irishness are concerned, his more recent output reminds us that he 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 Strangers in the House:
& I want to act as 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 established 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 exaggerated, 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 see him at (at least) one remove from the dominant modes of his homeland.
How then to sum up the work of this sui generis exponent of the lyric tradition? Small sad movies? Slow blues that build themselves into sudden jagged riffs, or a punk thrash that segues without warning into soul? Cutis 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 of how odd and far away the past is. Or just read them for yourself and listen.
The Irish Card, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 1993
Sacrilege, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 1998
Stranger In The House, Wrecking Ball Press, Hull, 2001
weightless, tall-lighthouse, Luton, 2006
some turbulent weather, tall-lighthouse, Luton, 2008
goin' down slow: selected peoms 1985-2010, tall-lighthouse,Luton, 2010
Face, Pighog Press, Brighton, 2013
Review of Face at the Dublin Review of Books
Interview on the inspiration for Face
Video of Cleary reading three poems