Sunday Poem – Tom Cleary

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I’m writing this feeling very delicate as I went out last night to a friends 50th birthday party.  Lady C, as she shall be called on this blog had no idea her husband had planned a surprise party and thought she was just popping round to the bar where the party was for a quick drink before being whisked away to enjoy a slap up meal at a restaurant.  As the room of about 150 odd people fell silent so we could all shout ‘Surprise!’ as she opened the door I did think how terrible it would be if Lady C fell over with the shock.  She is made of sterner stuff though and soon recovered.  It was lovely to see such a large amount of people turning out for Lady C’s birthday.  There was a great band on as well called The Sidecars who got everybody up dancing.  I only drank three bottles of lager but then I was up dancing all night and now I feel like I drank ten bottles.  Does anybody else get that?  When I used to go out drinking and dancing when I was younger, I used to get horrible hangovers but that was because I drank like an idiot.  It felt like a fair exchange – drink and stay out all night and pay for it afterwards.  Now however, I only drink a little bit and I still feel terrible in the morning.

I broke off from writing this blog to go for my Sunday run.  I normally go at 10am but everybody was at Lady C’s party last night as well so we decided to go at 12pm instead.  We went for a run along the beach but nobody had remembered to check the tide times which meant risking running over the stones and possibly breaking an ankle or going up and down the sand dunes.  I was all for risking broken bones but nobody else agreed so off we went, up and down the rather steep sand dunes.

 

This week has felt like the week I learnt to prioritise things.  I often make lists of jobs to do, but then I waft about from job to job on the list and then I have a panic because I’ve left something to the last minute.  This week I went through the list, helped by my trusty husband and put things in the order they needed to be done.

Hanging over my head this week is the dreaded tax return which isn’t helping things. When I look back over my spreadsheets that I’ve kept over the last few years I do feel quite proud.  2011-2012 I made a loss as a writer.  This was the first year I really started working as a poet.  2012-13 I managed to break even and 2013-14 I will be making my first ever profit – not enough to retire on, but enough to consider it a viable part-income, at least.

So Monday will be the day the tax return gets finished, even it kills me, even if I don’t see the light of day ALL DAY etc etc.  Not that I’m being dramatic about it or anything.

My first and most pressing deadline this week was to write out the first assignment for my Poetry School online course ‘What Work Is’.  I managed to get this finished on Thursday so that was one job ticked off the list.  The course doesn’t start till the 28th January, but the Poetry School are doing some work on the website and the assignment needed to go up this week.

My second job was to ring the lovely Clare Shaw to have a chat about a course that we are tutoring together at Ty Newydd in a couple of weeks time.  We will be spending a week with a group of girls from a school in Manchester.  I’m really looking forward to the week.  We did get slightly distracted from planning by catching up on various bits of gossip but never mind.   I haven’t been to Ty Newydd for a couple of years now, but it is a very special place to me.  I went on my first, life-changing residential poetry course there and then went and did a course every year for the next three or four years so the house and the area mean a lot to me.

Bookings for the St Ives Residential poetry course that I’m tutoring with Steve Ely are going really well.  We now have just two places left, if there is anybody who has been swithering about whether to go or not.  It will be a fantastic week in beautiful surroundings.  I’ve managed to book my train ticket to Crewe where I’ll be getting picked up by John Foggin and Steve Ely before we head down to St Ives.  I’m looking forward to this week as well – I went on family holidays to Cornwall every year when I was younger so again, I get the chance to feel all nostalgic when I’m there.

I am also doing my first bit of mentoring for the Poetry School tomorrow, which is really exciting.  In fact, after I’ve finished writing this blog, I’ll be reading through the poems I’ve been sent, ready for the skype chat with my mentee tomorrow.  If anybody is interested in a tutorial or extended mentoring with me, please get in touch with The Poetry School or contact me directly by email (you can find this on the Contact page)

This doesn’t sound like I’ve had that much to do actually – but it has definitely felt like it!  In between the above tasks I’ve been answering emails, gathering content for the website for Kendal Poetry Festival, inviting a set of poets to come and read for A Poem and a Pint in 2016.  One evening was spent sending emails out about St Ives to get the last few places filled.

So today’s Sunday Poem is by a lovely man called Tom Cleary.  I first met him when I did a reading in Hebden Bridge bookshop a couple of months ago. He bought my book and asked me to sign it, not mentioning that he also wrote poetry until I asked him and then he didn’t say anything about the fact that he’d had a pamphlet out in 2014.  I only found that out a month or so ago, when I was the guest poet at Puzzle Poets and Tom got up to read and read a few poems from his pamphlet.

I thought his poetry was really special on first hearing, but I didn’t manage to catch him to buy a copy as he whizzed off as soon as the reading finished to give someone a lift home.  I am nothing if not determined though, and the kindly Bob Horne agreed to pass on the money for a pamphlet and my address so that Tom could post it out to me.

Tom’s pamphlet is called The Third Miss Keane which strikes me as a promising title anyway and it does hint at what is to come in this pamphlet, which is a host of really good, and interesting stories.  The poems often feel slightly surreal, or fairy-tale like, but they always have their own inner logic.

Like Rose Cook, the poet I featured last week on the blog, I hadn’t heard of Tom Cleary before.  It just proves how many fantastic poets there are, writing brilliant poetry and not being noticed enough for the good stuff they are writing.  Or maybe it proves that I am losing touch with the poetry scene, and not keeping up…

 

Gobstoppers – Tom Cleary

On our way home from school
we bought boiled sweets in paper bags,
bright red gobstoppers highlighted with flecks of black,
gumballs, lemon drops, toffee slabs on a stick,
flavoured with aniseed, sherbet or mint.
We sucked and sucked until our mouths
glittered like lipstick.  Our tongues
burned with the sweet acid
and we stuck them out of our mouths
and fanned them with our hands.

We bought them in a grey shop
on the corner of nowhere, on waste ground,
in front of rows of cream and white pebble-dashed houses.
Behind the yellow of its misty window,
dead flies lay scattered and limp flags of cobwebs drifted.
A sickly young man in an advert behind a cracked frame
was scarved in drifts of smoke.

The owners were two elderly sisters, who could have been twins.
Their hair was scraped back in buns
with loose straggly wisps.  They stood awkwardly
like shy guests waiting to be introduced.
Their eyes reminded me of my aunt,
and I imagined them to be the lost wives of farmers,
abducted from their homes and carried away
over great distances, to spend their lives
exiled in this bare shop, selling sweets
to small boys for their hot pennies.

Behind the counter they were ill at ease,
standing at an odd angle to one another,
as if they’d been set there in place,
figures in an installation.  I sensed a yearning
in them, as though they’d never stopped wondering
what had become of the chickens that used to peck
at their ankles and their shoe laces.
When they handed us change
with a delicate bend of the wrist,
were they remembering the butter churn?

I think this poem is a good example of the work you can expect to find in the pamphlet. Throughout the pamphlet, and in this poem, ordinary circumstances become slightly surreal and strange.

It also gave me a lovely feeling of nostalgia – although we only bought sweets from the rather ordinary corner shop when I was young, which sat at the top of our road next to a chinese takeaway and a hairdressers, there was one long hot summer when my sister and I and our friends would put our money altogether and buy five or six paper bags of sweets and sit on the park, eating sweets all day, being bothered by wasps because the sweets were so sticky.  I remember watching the newsagent as he weighed out the sweets on a large silver scale and squeezing the bottom of the bag to check how much sugar had gathered.

Tom’s shop is a little more exciting though, and a little less hygenic than the one I remember from my childhood.  I love the detail of the shop window with its ‘dead flies lay scattered and limp flags of cobwebs drifted’ and of course the strangeness of the scene is set up before then.  The shop is ‘in the middle of nowhere.’  The portrait of the two elderly sisters who run the shop is also very cleverly drawn.  That detail of the way they stand ‘awkwardly/like shy guests waiting to be introduced’ gives you a picture of them straight away.  The best detail in this third verse though, is the ‘hot pennies’ at the end, again, as soon as you read that, you know exactly what he means.

The idea that they remind the speaker of the poem ‘of his aunt’ which he then goes on to develop saying he imagines them to be ‘the lost wives of farmers.’  He never implicitly says that his aunt was the lost wife of a farmer, but we are left to infer this.  It is such a strange idea, which he then develops brilliantly in the last stanza.  We are left not knowing if the aunt was the lost wife of a farmer, and she was full of ‘yearning’ or whether the two elderly sisters were or maybe nobody was, and it was all in the boys imagination.  I don’t mind not knowing though and I think this is what makes it a good poem – not only the brilliantly drawn details, but also the mystery we are left with.

In 2011 Tom won the Writers Forum/HappenStance Competition and in January 2014 he was featured poet in Orbis 166. I was interested to read that The WF/HappenStance prize was to have been the publication of a sampler. But there were too many good poems so HappenStance published a pamphlet instead: The Third Miss Keane which you can buy from the HappenStance website for the bargain price of only £4 plus postage.  In 2015, Tom was also a winner of the prestigious Northern Writers’ Award, one of six New North poets.  You can find out a little bit more about Tom on his profile page at the HappenStance website.

Hope you enjoyed the poem, and please do let me know what you think of it! I know if you wanted to order the pamphlet it would make a hard working publisher and a lovely poet very happy, which for just £4 seems like a Very Good Thing To Do.

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8 responses »

  1. Really liked the poem Kim, loved the line “when they handed us change with a delicate bend of the wrist” how many times has someone handed something too us in that way?without us noticing,I think that it’s really clever piece of observation.

  2. We’ve been singing Tom Cleary’s praises around Calderdale for a bit now, and I was bowled over by The Third Miss Keane when he read from it at a launch in December 2014…with the support of Gaia Holmes. There’s a dark edge to his poetry, and more than a touch of Seamus Heaney, too. Lovely post, kim. Thank you xx

    • I’m glad he is appreciated! I don’t know him but he came across as a very humble person when I met him and unlikely to blow his own trumpet so have taken it upon myself to do it for him!

  3. A good poem to feature here. From a pamphlet I love to keep visiting – because it does feel like somewhere you almost know and almost could.

  4. Thanks Kim, enjoyed that enormously. Just took me back to Briton Ferry and my Auntie Maggie’s shop (you’ll appreciate that I think?) I’m learning more and more about styles and look forward to St Ives.

  5. Kim — have just got around to tweeting and sharing etc but I notice there’s a typo in second last line of first stanza of poem where it says ‘moths’, not ‘mouths’. Do you have time to fix it before I share? Nellx ps if you ever have any more of mine, I could save you time by sending you an electronic copy of any of the poems. x

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