‘Tall Tales and Small Fables’: The Third Miss Keane reviewed

The Third Miss Keane, by Tom Cleary

£4.00, HappenStance Press


To be a story-teller is an art, and one which Tom Cleary has perfected. Born in County Tipperary, Cleary became a secondary-school teacher in London, Manchester and Leeds before settling in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. The Third Miss Keane is his first pamphlet. The poems cover a broad range of topics, from fairy tales to buttermilk, yet consistent throughout is a close affinity between speaker and subject. Each poem warmly opens the door to the reader, and leaves them plenty of room in which to settle and watch. There is doubt, and uncertainty: “The hush” of the “slippers […] on the floorboards” may be “The music teacher” or a midwife, but the speaker’s awareness of the world around him and its effect on his life is always acute. The poems speak of an intimate relationship with a gentle and beautiful world; like a cobweb in the morning dew, delicate, yet perfectly supportive.

Each poem is a story, bursting with life and the lives of many: “Matty” who “lived for a whole year in a hardwood and glass hut on the lawn” is found across the page from “Angela” who “kicked stones about on the hill and played top in little circles”, whilst the speaker glides silently through the slender volume, lighting on a mother who “sits amongst her flowers and teachers her boy his letters”. Unexpected juxtapositions meet as neatly as bread and butter: a violin is set against “piled-up hair alive with bugs”. Cleary is most at home in moments like these. At other times, however, it is easy to feel a little offended, even hurt, by how he approaches major issues with apparent frivolity. One poem, ‘Birth Control,’ criticises Catholic views on abstinence, but presents the human beings involved as caricatures:

When Lent came, she fasted. Dressed in her finery,

she sailed away to confess to the Carmelites in Whitefriars Street

It is hard not to feel that Cleary is trivialising the issues involved, particularly when we meet the woman’s husband, who

gave us a lecture on back-street abortions, lingering

on the implements […]

Not that he was uncritical of the Church’s position

on contraception. Abstention be blowed, he said.

We knew she was listening in the kitchen.

We could hear her throwing cutlery at the drawer.

Nonetheless, a lot of Cleary’s debut will appeal even to readers who do not usually delve into poetry. The Third Miss Keane is an entertaining collection to slip into on a cloudy afternoon, or to be buried in for hours in a dark corner of the library; the more you listen, the more you will hear.

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