Brendan Cleary

Grass roots poet crying out against 'violence and mindless conformity'

Brendan Cleary was born in Carrickfergus in 1958 and attended Carrickfergus Grammar School. In 1977 he left Northern Ireland for Middlesbrough to attend Teesside Polytechnic. He then settled in Newcastle, where he founded Echo Room Press, was the editor of Stand magazine, and earned an MA from Sunderland Polytechnic.
He now lives in Brighton, East Sussex, working as a poetry teacher and as artistic director for the regional poetry organisation The South, as well as performing his poetry regularly on radio, at festivals and in schools. 
Always an activist for small press culture, before Cleary published his first full-length collection The Irish Card with Bloodaxe Books in 1993, many of his pamphlets appeared with such presses as Jackson’s Arm Press, Smith/Doorstop and Wide Skirt. 
His second collection Sacrilege, also with Bloodaxe, appeared in 1998, followed in 2001 by Stranger in the House (Wrecking Ball Press).
Cleary’s most recent pamphlet is Jackson from Pighog press. A tragicomic sequence of poems about a man ‘propped up on breezeblocks’, it maintains his long tradition of loyalty to the ephemeral and non-commercial world of grassroots poetry. 
Despite living for over 25 years in England, Cleary has retained strong links with Northern Ireland. He revisits the province frequently, and has been a regular contributor to its small press magazines, including The Gown Literary Supplement, The Big Spoon and The Belfast Review. 
While he has recently been performing new poems set in Ireland, including ‘Father Smyth’ about a paedophile priest, and ‘The Screamers’ about gang culture in the 1970s, of his published work to date the final section of poems in The Irish Carddeals most directly with his Ulster experience. 
Here, the speaker navigates the sectarian divisions and religious strictures that make a trip home a cause for both self-examination and self-concealment.  
In ‘Brian’s Fables’, for example, like many people who come back home to a small town for a visit, the Catholic speaker wonders: 
How come I’m starting to feel more distant, like a pop star
when I meet up with the old Eagles team in The Whitecliff?
As the poem continues possible reasons for his sense of dislocation and ‘stage presence’, as well as his departure, become clear:
& I had to be called Brian when we played away fixtures
at least in some places, say in Ballyclare where the Dirts
in their bomber jackets waved Red Hands & Union Jacks
behind the goal posts weren’t anything abnormal & fights
were many & games got abandoned & once the old Whitehead team
had to leap in their cars, escape with their kit still on.
The speaker of these frank and edgy poems emerges as someone with a great love for his family and old friends, but also as a sensitive individual who needs to turn his back on the constant threat of violence he grew up with. 
Contemplating the view from the ferry back to England, which he now considers home, the speaker in ‘Sealink’ declares:
Let’s face it, I came here to escape bad blood,
a land of martyrs with their kneecaps smashed,
bonfires blaring as the war drums sound,
a debris of legs scooped into bin liners.
Allergic to not only the Troubles, the speaker of ‘Nights At The Irish Club’ finds little except ‘fashionable’ blarney to celebrate in ‘travel brochure poster’ images of rural Ireland. And in ‘Wedding in Omagh’ the eccentricities of the country people, who keep sandwiches in a drawer, boil eggs in an old tin, and don’t bother with plates, are presented through the stunned eyes of a man who is too aware of the religious restrictions that permeate such quaint rustic economies:
& I knew how far I’d wandered when revellers teased Thomas,
the bridegroom, rolling their eyes, nudging him about the honeymoon
& I honestly got the feeling they’d not fucked yet
& all that innocence puts a strain on me …
The poems also call into question, however, the speaker’s own pretensions to having grown above or beyond the place of his birth. In ‘On the Border’ he is on a bus stopped by soldiers. Hiding his own fear with arrogance, one of the privates cockily searches the racks and beneath the seats:
Training his stare on my shaking face
contempt spreads as when he thinks of vomit.
he seizes up mutiny in our faces & I witness hate
- if I had the guts, which I don’t, I’d spit
consider fields & cattle worth prison, or worth fighting for …
This sense of being powerless to protect himself or a fragile world of beauty runs throughout Cleary’s work. Whether he is writing about Ireland, drinking and gambling, romantic relationships or soul music, his poetry is essentially a lyric cry against violence and mindless conformity. 
Often, pubs close, horses lose, and, as TS Eliot observed, women come and go; then his insistence on the uniqueness of his vision is all the poet seems to be left with.
Arguably, Cleary’s condition of being Irish in England inflects not simply his powerful, colloquial language, but also his preoccupation, noted by critic Harry Novak, with such states ‘of inner exile’.
But the poet’s queasy reflections on rootlessness and failed dreams are ultimately redeemed not only by his humour, but also his tenderness and human warmth, evident in love poems like ‘6 for Alison’ in Sacrilege, or one of his most popular poems, ‘Unhappy Hour’:
So I asked her why she left
it was because I was so ugly
So I drink here at twice the price
with my desperate sad compatriots.
Him over there in the baseball cap,
that’s Eric, his wife fell under a bus
& Big Arnold’s mum has got cancer
& Rosie in the corner has lost it,
by 6 most nights speaking in tongues.
But these people are my friends
& they matter, drunk in slum basements,
stumbling heartbroken in the sticks.
We drink here at twice the price,
it’s our own glorious sad republic.
People are my friends & they matter…

Naomi Foyle