Face is both the title of Brendan Cleary’s new collection from Pighog press, and the title of the first poem to be found within. It takes a few pages before its actual meaning – at least in this context – becomes clear. “Face” is, in fact, the name given to the narrator’s brother, who passes away in the first poem. This opening verse is a raw, rushing, spilling, grief-stricken outpouring that spans several pages. Even when it comes to an end, the loss of Face echoes through the poems that follow.
Cleary’s writing is straightforward and sharp. He uses football – one of Face’s great loves – as a way to evoke memories. It’s a surprisingly effective device – even though I didn’t understand many of the references, the emotional resonance of them was clear enough that the meaning was not lost on me. The poems are achingly precise and authentic in their evocation of objects – whether those objects are magazines, phones, DVDs, or a flask full of sausages. Little is said that’s not outlined in tangible objects or people, and so you’re left with a real sense of a void – all these markers of a person and yet nobody to relate them to. It’s a stunning effect.
The second section, “In Company”, moves on from the voice of the narrator that lead us through the first. The change is jarring, as the first few poems of “In Company” still relate to death, but now it is the death of others rather than the death of Face. It took a few poems for me to realise this, and it left me feeling that the collection had stepped down a little, become less personal and less involved than it was before. Now Face’s death was just one in many, and while each was rendered beautifully, they didn’t have quite the singular, elegiac quality of the earlier poems.
That’s not to say that the midsection of the collection isn’t incredibly good. Standout poems include “Tomatoes”, in which a narrator lingers over a purchase of fruit while elsewhere in the world dozens die each second; and “At The Track”, in which the dead – including fathers, brothers and old lovers – return to life. The surreal elements of these poems help to give the collection a sense of scale – as though personal grief is giving way to universal grief, to a wider mourning.
The collection draws together again at the end, with a series of poems in which a narrator waits for news of someone in a hospital ward. This section once again tells a story in a series of small episodes, and although it drew me in completely, it didn’t have quite the resonance of Face’s story. I felt a little as though I’d read the collection backwards, with the emotional climax placed at the beginning, and everything else following along behind. That said, the peoms of Face lingered with me long after I read them, and I’d highly recommend this beautifully-presented, haunting collection from Pighog Press.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England. He works as a copywriter for a charity, and in his spare time writes book reviews.