reviewed by Charles Whalley
Face, dedicated to Cleary’s late brother, begins with a moving elegiac sequence of 14 poems, also entitled ‘Face’. With free verse and short lines, Cleary eschews the ‘poetic’ for bare poems in a colloquial register that foregrounds concrete details, surrounding them with white space. Exemplary is ‘Breakfast with Face’:
a large fry in the Butter Churn in Larne one Saturday studying the coupon & I’m scanning the Sun with that advert so I ask you ‘Face whatya reckon to all this Harry Potter business then?’ so you cast a glance up from your plate ‘specky little cunt’ you reply then silence
Most of the poems in the sequence follow a similar shape and structure: proper nouns in the first 3 lines to place the scene, then a small bittersweet narrative addressed to Martin (or “face”) as ‘you’, often pinned on a single quotation and frequently in the present tense. The concision, especially with proper nouns, is powerful, as concrete details bring with them all the joy and messiness of reality, the short lines giving these details more gravity. The speaker’s insistence on concrete detail seems to increase in proportion to the emotional intensity, as in ‘Visits’:
& I could see you as if in some movie lying blue & dead on the concrete in your back yard near the bin with the hedge clippings
Cleary’s manner of simple sentence structures and breaking the line on syntactic units means that the poem could reasonably finish at the end of any line after “blue & dead”, and so each further detail on each successive line with which the poem refuses to end, and which seem superfluous to the poem’s emotional message, reflects the vividness of the impression, the lingering reality of the brother’s death, its shattering mundaneness.
With this style, the ‘poetic’ creeps back in unexpectedly. The last line of ‘Breakfast with Face’ (quoted above), for instance, asks to be read with some greater significance. Similarly, in ‘The Eagles’:
I remind him you were the worst header of a ball in the entire universe always jumping up your hands by your side your eyes closed & hopeful
The free verse foregrounds the syntactic parallelism of closing lines which again are “jumping up” for something greater. On a broader scale, the length of the sequence allows effects to be cumulative, allows characters to become rounder. The last lines of the sequence’s final poem, “& sometimes you’d sing/or rant & rave about Cantona”, would mean much less if there wasn’t an earlier poem to mention the poster of “King Eric Cantona” above Face’s fireplace, for example.
The speaker’s inner thoughts or emotions are mostly absent; the ‘you’s and ‘your’s greatly outnumber the ‘I’s and ‘me’s, instead using the episodic memories as a way of approaching grief. Further, for a sequence ultimately describing a personal loss, many of the poems describe the grief of others. In ‘Ringing Pete’, for instance, the speaker relates informing someone “in Gran Canaria”, presumably an old friend, of his brother’s death, and the poem ends on:
he was reading Balzac lying on a sunbed but now he said he felt empty so I imagined he got very pissed & wept somewhere in the shade.
Frequently the pretext of a poem is the speaker reminding another character of a shared memory relating to Face (or vice versa), exchanging tales as a communal process of mourning. Indeed, the sequence explicitly explores these cultural practices of grieving, in its moments of Face placing a “Man United badge” on the grave of a dead kitten, or of Face always pausing “no matter how pissed” on mentioning someone’s name to add “God rest his soul”, or of “English lads/raisin’ their glasses.” The sequence sees a life, and so reconciliation with its loss, as having a relative, social meaning, which is ultimately what most makes it moving and so relevant for elegy.
Against this first sequence, the rest of the collection, split into two more sections, struggles in comparison. Its middle section contains individual poems that without the help of cumulative meanings often falter. In ‘In Company’, for instance, the speaker relates meeting “a Russian fella” on a bench, and nothing else. The poem’s sparseness is even a little puzzling, and when it ends with “& both of us heading off” there’s remarkably little weight to the whole thing. Concrete details in short poems, as the line “So I leave the cornish pasty stand” (‘His Boots’), seem somewhat baffling in their triviality and almost twee, especially when we’ve seen the charge Cleary is capable of giving them. It is often the trouble of collections to suffer from being too long.Charles Whalley was born in 1989. He read English at Trinity College, Oxford, and was published in The Mays. He currently works in academic publishing near Oxford and lives in Reading.