Gems revisited: Tom Cleary

Irish Lake

My apologies. We’re a day late. You’ve waited with enormous patience, and all I can say is: your patience will be rewarded. To start with, you won’t have to wade through any ramblings on things poetic, and that’s because our guest has sent me an embarassment of riches. Lots of big satisfying poems, today, and little for me to do but crack on and introduce him. Ladies and gentlemen: Mr Tom Cleary!

This is some of what I said about him on his first visit to the Cobweb in November 2014:

It was the first of several posts when I reflected on a poet’s voice, and Irish voices (North and South) in particular, and how I’d once met Seamus heaney by accident and heard him read, and bought him a pint:

“……..most of all, I remember the voice, the one that tells me how to hear every poem of his that I ever read thereafter. And realising that poetry was an unfair business, and there were poets born with a headstart, with gift of a certain kind of dialect or accent, absolved of the curse of RP.

It’s something I think of particularly whenever I hear an Irish poet reading. Frank Ormesby was one. James Caruth is another. They are voices made for poetry, in the way I think that voices like Garrison Keillor’s and Bill Bryson are made for prose storytelling. It’s difficult to describe the quality I’m thinking of. It’s not the fact of a tenor or a baritone voice. It’s the business of rhythm and of softened consonants and the space that’s given to vowels that does it for me. (Harrison’s consonants are nailed down, if you see what I mean. They don’t compromise. They put an edge on the words). I’m thinking of the way the lines come in a series of waves, often the rise and fall of three or four syllables, almost regular but never metronomic, like small seashore waves. A bit like the patterns of Anglo Saxon poetry, but more spacious. The result is always unassertive, unemphatic, and it has both authority and authenticity. Like I say, it’s an unfair advantage. I could listen to them reading catalogues and bus timetables.”

Try to keep that in your mind when you read the poems that come later.Tom Cleary is an Irish poet who lives in Hebden Bridge. When he retired after teaching for many years in secondary schools in England, he started to write poetry. In 2011 he won a poetry competition organised by Writers Forum and HappenStance, and his prize was the publication in August 2014 by HappenStance of his pamphlet, The Third Miss Keane.


In 2015, he won a Northern Writers’ Award as one of six New North Poets. [I was personally much heartened by this…Tom, like me, is in his 70s, and we both come late to writing seriously]. In 2016, one of his poems, ‘Black’, was longlisted in the National Poetry Competition. In May of this year, he promoted, organised and fronted the highly successful ‘Irish and Irishness’ Poetry Reading at the Bradford Literature Festival in which he was also one of the 7 poets on view. He gave a public reading at the Poetry School annual launch in London in April, and at the ‘Poetry at the Parsonage’ poetry festival in Haworth in July.

[An aside: that Irish and Irishness was a remarkable affair, held in   a ballroom in the Midland Hotel in Bradford. A room the size of a football pitch, all mirrors and chandeliers. Like I imagine the Titanic. A massive audience, and a line up that involved Anthony Costello, Ian Duhig, Peter Riley, Kim Moore (temporarily granted Irish citizenship)..and Natalie Rees, who I seriously hope will one day agree to be a guest on the Cobweb. He sits well in that kind of company, does Tom. As his poems will now demonstrate.

When he was here last he let me use a poem from The Third Miss Keane …it starts innocently enough


I saw her first at the bridge where we went

for the dancing. Her legs leapt to the frenzy of the fiddles.

They all wanted her but she chose me.

Come with me for the goose, she said.

But that last line is anything but innocent, and the poem goes on disturbingly, in the dark way of folk tales. These two endorsements give you the flavour.

‘In the neo-folktales of Tom Cleary’s The Third Miss Keane, we see a refreshingly off-kilter voice from we expect great things in the future.’ – Poetry Book Society

‘The poems in The Third Miss Keane often feel slightly surreal, or fairy-tale like, but they always have their own inner logic’ – Kim Moore.

Tom’s latest poems move in new directions, but the roots and the voice are constant I think. Though they grow darker. The first will feel like nearly-familiar territory if you know ‘The third Miss keane’.

Mrs Cassidy

When the Cassidys came to the house next door, my brother Ferdie

fell in love with the mother. Through a delicate wine glass

pressed against the wall of his room he listened to their couplings.

How can she love that hairless creature? How can she let him touch her?

He stalked her through the markets on Saturdays. At night

he stood motionless behind the dark hedges of our garden

and watched her bedroom light go on and off.

He knelt behind her at mass, his nose nuzzling her hair.

Her heady perfume of musk drugged him into a swoon.


Later at the summer fair, he fell desperately in love

with the Headless Lady. Once we went together to see her,

shuffling and bumping through the crowded tent on tiptoe,

our sandalled feet numbed in the wet grass. In the deep shadows

of the tent behind a low balustrade she filled her Windsor chair,

snug and cosy. I couldn’t take my eyes off

the tangled cluster of tubes and wires pouring out of her neck.


Ferdie was enraptured by her stillness, by the soft slow movement

of her thighs beneath her ample skirts, the even rise and fall

of her breasts. He saw advantages in a lover not having a face.

When should I make my move, Cis? I could say nothing.

When the fair moved on at the summer’s end, he locked himself in his room.

Downstairs we listened to his sobbing, frozen in our chairs.


I love the texture and rhythm that underpin this dark, surreal, or fairy-tale like story, the doubt about who is telling the tale, and the narrator’s appalled fascination at the brother’s be-wilderment. He can tell a story, Tom Cleary…a story with lots more questions than answers, and one validated, like ‘Goose’ by the matter-of fact credibilty given by their opening lines.


The next poem shifts us from a rural Ireland into a more documented and documentary urban Ireland.

War Photo


Policemen in black and helmets squat on their haunches.

One sits on his bottom, legs spread, staring through a Perspex face shield.

They look like small boys in costume playing jackstones on the road,

skidding lumps of broken paving over the tarmac.


Beyond them there’s a woman in a striped sweater,

a man in a shirt as white as an advert,

figures with blank Os for heads,

like mannequins in a field to frighten birds.

A screen of metal with a mesh of gauze

hides a delicate blur that might be a child.

And Michael may have been hunched for hours, nursing his camera,

stepping back and sideways to avoid the bricks,

steaming cups of tea between the heels of his mittens.


Then these two women promenaded through holding hands.

One, her face fat with flush,

bundled her raincoat with her handbag under one arm,

and pressed the older woman’s hand to her thigh.

The companion blinked through the flash of her glasses

and surrendered her hand as if it was no longer hers.

It almost looks staged, back-projected from a comfortable suburb

where people had more time to talk

about supermarket bargains and boozy nights out,

Grania’s wedding and a June flight to the Canaries.



A shift of place and shift of voice to match. It seems to me that this poem nails down that dreadful quality of banality, the way violence becomes mundane, the complex fears and determinations that lie behind flaccid cliches, like ‘Life must go on’. Because Auden shone an unforgettable light on the irony of that. Atrocity happens anywhere, and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In details like

a man in a shirt as white as an advert,


figures with blank Os for heads,

like mannequins in a field to frighten birds.


a delicate blur that might be a child.

Tom makes you look again at what you thought was familiarly forgotten.


Lest you suppose that Tom’s landscapes and narratives are necessarily ‘Irish’, it’s worth pointing out that he’s also lived in Spain, and that there are harder, harsher landscapes than the greys and greens of Ireland. He’s also recently been setting poems in Russia, and in snow and ice. But this one I was pleased to have because it showcases Tom’s power as a storyteller.

The irises in the arroyo


When he drove me up into the mountains that night

a sickle moon hung over the peaks in the blue-black velvet of the sky,

but he never let me see his face.


The locals ignored me.

They just turned away and looked down

as if they’d got a whiff from the cloacas.

But then they turned against me with a vengeance

for no reason, talked behind my back,

spread rumours about my relations with Carmela.

I went into a crowded bar and everyone fell silent.

I met them in the street and they deliberately showed me their backs.


I grew so weary of their endless fiestas,

the fiesta of the witches,

the fiesta of St. Agatha with no breasts,

the fiesta of the nun miraculously pregnant.

And of their third-rate music.

And of their dead wild pigs stinking of dung, their rank jabali.

And to listen to that uncouth language, all day, all day,

snapping like storks’ bills, clack, clack, clack.

Never to hear your own tongue spoken.

You practise it in your head but you lack the muscle to hold it.

My language is a cheese in the attic, nibbled away.


Anonymous notes typed in lower case used to come on plain paper.

I thought someone was on my side, but it was just old Q4

up to his tricks, his never-ending game of loyalties and betrayals.


Now they’ve stopped my money.

This is when they send a man.

I jump at the crack of a tree in the wind,

or stones rolling on the roof, or a crow squalling.

I watch every day for the man and I’m too old to run.

I lie in bed listening for his footsteps.

In the market yesterday, I saw a face I knew.

I ran at him but they closed ranks and blocked me.


All night the rain’s been bucketing down

on my lean-to kitchen, pounding the plastic sheeting.

Its grey smoking curtains have wiped out the mountains.

The irises in the arroyo are sunk.


I have no idea who is telling me this story, but I’m convinced of his authenticity. I could spend hours inventing a backstory, and an ending. I want to make a film of it. It reminds me of Graham Greene. It reminds me, too of Cormac McCarthy. It’s jammed with anxiety and hopelessness. It reminds me of that Bob Dylan line ‘In the hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes’. In fact, it’s another line of Dylan’s from Desolation Row that jumped into my mind when I read the next, and last,  poem: they’re selling postcards of the hanging


Waiting for the General


Carts were abandoned at roadsides.

Unmilked cows trumpeted their pain from the byres.

Soldiers jammed the street with their grief, psychotic saints.

Some walked in a dream, gun hands dangling.

Others waved their arms recklessly like burning brands.

Women wept and threw themselves on the ground,

filling their slack mouths with gravel.

Others held their palms out cupped to catch rain.


I left and I walked to the vaulted rocks

and I watched the spring ooze around the flat plates.

I eased myself into a green wash of water.

When the serpent rose up before me, swaying and humming,

its skin of oil and water rippling,

I measured my frame against it, and I cut it down.


I’d love to know what you make of this, how it suddenly swerves beyond folktale and into fable, how it ends with an image straight out of a pre-Rapaelite catalogue.

I hope it won’t be too long before Tom Cleary has another collection published, but in the meantime, if you don’t already own it, I do urge you buy

The third Miss Keane: [Happenstance 2014]  use the link:



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