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Sample Poems by Michael Cleary
Solipsism in the ’50s
We grew up on them, so names
of streets meant nothing to us
closer than history, more common than trees.
Washington. Lexington. Lincoln. Sherman. Grant.
Elm. Pine. Park. Walnut. Cherry. Grove.
Some were plain and simply
adjacent until we learned better in school.
Orville and Wilbur. Ft. Amherst and Garrison.
Mohican and Fenimore and Cooper.
On Food Drive Saturday mornings
our parents sent us down those streets
to the Paramount loaded with cans
of soup, baked beans, ravioli, stew.
Whoever the poor people were, they seemed
far from us as the mural ceiling
with its fabulous chariot race in the sky.
From the balcony we watched The Robe,
Demetrius and the Gladiators, Ben-Hur.
The dreary rote of Catechism turned
Technicolor and CinemaScope and Real.
One summer afternoon
Boom-Boom and I found the backstage door open
to fresh air and not a soul inside.
We never wondered what made us do it
or worried about what could happen.
Climbing up to the back row seats
we bolted forward, leaping on chair backs
like railroad ties all the way down,
then up again and down and out to the alley.
Never wondering what kept us from falling
or getting caught or why, with no tickets gone,
someone showed the movie on time
so beyond us other lives spoke to each other,
flickered, made their way in the dark.
That last second
The body talking
to its self, saying only
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Please please please please please.
A sacrifice of dignity
on the altar of luck.
The least hope
of some easygoing god.
My wife, gentle and patient, swears
by the pup’s breed: all good; eager to please.
I want to believe, still heartily sorry
for times before, following my father’s way
while learning to detest it even more:
shouts to the beat of newspapers thwacking;
muzzles ground into awful mouthfuls.
But weeks of coming inside only
to mess moments later and twice
gnawing halfway through French doors
wear us down to compromise: a return
to crude necessity, but firmly resolved
to be twice as calm, half as rough.
So next time, I nudge her nose
to the puddle; stern words to memorize
the taste of No. No. Bad Girl.
Each time, her squirming harder
to restrain, her dread
a bellyful of thorns
I remember from confessionals:
God’s wrath in dry whispers, just
punishments to help me sin no more.
As she complies, I offer praise and confirmation
—Good Girl! Good Girl!—
But the language of her body
doing its work defies such lies:
eyes white with sidelong glances;
shoulders slumped as if condemned;
back arched to bear the weight of
Bad and No all her days,
the price we learn to pay
for soiling a God-given world.
Painting is a mediator between this strange
hostile world and us… giving form to our terrors
as well as our desires.
Warren Street: a peeling three story monstrosity
with porches and bulging balconies
we covered with watered down Tawny Gold.
Across the street: The Hyde Collection’s stately elegance.
Inside, highbrows and high mucketymucks
the snide world over had Rembrandt, Renoir
and who-knows-who all at their call.
Slapdash painting was all we numbskulls knew.
Consider the landlord’s daily joke:
“Move yer ass, Michelangelo, it aint no church!”
The very top of the turret
we put off til last day, its six-foot spire
the high point of a lowdown summer job—
then discovered our longest ladder was short.
Talk about ingenious: we broke down a 20-footer,
tied one half to that 40-foot backbreaking bastard
and Marty, the smallest and craziest or bravest,
got a bucket and brush and climbed rungs single-handed.
All we could do was brace the bottom from three sides,
keep it from wanting to kick out or slide.
Talk about stupid: all for a buck fifty an hour,
no rain days, no insurance,
no one to turn to and so much to lose,
air singed with danger and no backing down.
Did we breathe while he climbed smaller and smaller
to the top? Did anyone pray til he came down?
Swear Goddamnit, you guys—?
At The Hyde: galleries rich
with Old Masters and Masterpieces,
Beauty’s Truth and Truth’s Beauty cherished for ages.
Where we stood: a world plain and simple.
This moment—and this one—or this—
as if storm clouds crackled and rumbled overhead
so we knew
this moment right here
held a lightning bolt about to blow up
the future or bless our lucky day;
three of us clenched at the foot of the ladder;
Marty’s outstretched brush barely twitching—
as if he were tickling the balls of a Tawny Gold Godzilla,
all of us counting on Boy Scout knots and cheap rope,
dumb hope doing its best not to shudder or let go.