The Third Miss Keane, Tom Cleary
HappenStance, 2014    £4.00

Poems with ‘eyes’

I was struck by the numerous descriptions of ‘eyes’ in these wonderful character-portraits of poems. There are also, within the group, recurring themes around ‘watching’. And the sense of observation – on the poet’s part – is, anyway, acute. Cumulatively, I’m left with a strong sense of a child’s-eye view of a world that’s frightening, but continuously scanned for potential points of contact.

The eyes in these poems are squinting, scowling, winking, peeping. There’s the ‘fluthered’ husband, whose ‘eyes shone like cigarettes drawing in the dark’ (‘Birth Control’); the sister shopkeepers whose ‘eyes reminded me of my aunt, / and I imagined them to be the lost wives of farmers, / abducted from their homes’ (‘Gobstoppers’); or the grandmother, who survived a murder attempt by her son, ‘her face a round blank with gaping eyes’ (‘Full Tilt’).

You need to read the whole pamphlet to get the full effect. It’s powerful – and reminds me slantwise of Coraline, with its terrifying ‘Other Mother’, and her button eyes.The Third Miss Keane conveys to me a similarly nightmarish under-life: the price any child may pay for lack of useful contact.

It’s interesting to contrast this too with the work of fellow Irish poet Tom Duddy. In Duddy’s ‘The Touch’, the boy rushes through a world not unlike Cleary’s. But, critically, his poem ends with ‘the doctor’s wife whose briskly gentle hands / once fixed my collar’.

There’s no such consolation in The Third Miss Keane. Just take the title character. We do not meet her face to face – unusually, we don't even get to see her eyes. Like Tom Duddy’s ‘The Touch’, one brief encounter closes the poem. How different an encounter it is, however:

Once I stood behind the third Miss Keane in church,
as we shuffled in a line towards the altar.
She wore a flat hat like a lift attendant’s.
Underneath it, her piled-up hair was alive with bugs
easing themselves crabwise in and out.

Charlotte Gann