: Book Review - Crude Angel by Suzanne Cleary :

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Crude Angel by Suzanne Cleary.  Bookmark Press, 88 pp, $13.95 paper 

This chatty, inquisitive collection celebrates the eccentric and inventive, with subjects ranging from Lawrence Welk to Angela Kumpe, specialist in the fur-sculpting art of “dog topiary.”  Cleary casts an eye alternately affectionate and ironic. 

In “I Will Wash Your Stockings,” a naïve early 20th-century speaker makes that unusual offer in a fan letter to aviatrix Katherine Stinson.  The result is surprisingly sweet and moving, as repressed desire complicates the homely invitation.  “One needs clean stockings,” the speaker insists.  Other times, celebration veers toward mockery. 

Cleary’s repeated “thank you” becomes sharp in “Thank You, Morgan Fairchild,” an homage to Fairchild for a late-in-life demonstration of how to sip without smudging lipstick.  But even here, one feels sideways admiration as Cleary lingers over detail—Fairchild’s “Fuchsia Dream lips” and her “tongue [pressed] against the glass”—and finally owns her fascination with the display. 

Crude Angel also considers its quirky aesthetic more directly.  The title poem finds in an ungainly carving a figure for human inspiration: “Its heavy, useless wings ... make us imagine/ rising.”  And “Woodpecker,” a formal sonnet, pictures a “loud, unapologetic” singer, “thick beak/ hacking bark.”  Yet this poet-figure produces profound song: “Unlike the birds that trill and soar, you moor./ Your drill, pursuing spring’s interior.” 

The book includes autobiographical forays, too, in which discursive playfulness builds to intimate meditation—the woodpecker’s “interior.”  “My Family Rides Horses Once and Never Again,” perhaps most touching of these, evokes the ride, a young instructor, and “the secret horse language” of flicking tails, before drilling down to pained inquiry into time and memory.  “How does one speak of the lost,” Cleary wonders, “of my parents standing with all of us/ in the high sun…?”  Such moments anchor this book of funny, accessible poems, bringing us closer to the heart beneath their brio and wit. 

Reviewer:  Benjamin S. Grossberg

Reviewed in our Spring 2019 "Americano" issue


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