Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Dispatching a Horse, Tom ClearyThe jacket is a very dark green. The title and author's name are both left justified in a white italic font. The title is largest in the top two inches of the jacket. The author's name, about a third of that size, is in the middle. The imprint logo is in the bottom right hand corner. There are no graphic images otherwise.

Calder Valley Poetry, 2018    £7.00


This pamphlet is divided into two sections, the first half of which is nearly long enough, and certainly rich enough, to form its own publication. Characters and events in this section are rooted in County Tipperary, the Catholic Ireland of the first half of the twentieth century and – not least because the viewpoint is often a child’s — this country is a compelling mixture of marvel, myth and terror.

The remarkable poem ‘Speak’, opens like this:

Look through this door, let your eyes accustom themselves
to the gloom, a garage maybe or a barn or a warehouse
or possibly an underground cellar, to deaden the noises,
and you will hear the punching [ ...]

Having created this aural scene – almost like a radio play — Tom Cleary moves into filmic clarity:

 [...] you will see the boy, young man, tied to the chair,
and the sergeant, his jacket hung on a nail and his sleeves rolled up,
goes on punching [ ... ]

It’s a scene of violence, riveting enough in itself, until suddenly it is irrevocably personal:

Then the officer steps forward, his hand raised as a signal,
the punching stops, and he bends down so that his face
is at a level with the prisoner’s and, faking a kind of sympathy,
enjoying the power of it, he says
Cleary you have one hour to live. Speak.

So, the reader thinks, this poem must be the story of what happens next. But it is more complicated than that.

There’s a stanza break, a time jump, and a change of perspective. Now we see a family breakfast table, and the poet’s childhood memory of his father (who must surely once have been the young man tied to the chair) recalling (and mocking) this historic event. Everything focuses on the officer’s threat, its precise enunciation:

Cleary you have one hour to live. Speak.

By this stage, we don’t even know whether the story is true (the brutal sergeant has become a ‘thespian torturer’). But the spell of the opening stanza is so powerful that the two experiences exist side by side: the young man about to be beaten to death; the same person decades later relishing his tale of torture. Each is emotionally ‘true’.

Immediacy. This is about poetic immediacy, the brilliancy of understatement and the existential challenge for a poet. If you had just one hour to live, and something to say — just one thing — what would it be and how would you say it? Speak.

Helena Nelson