I Will Listen If You Tell Me Who I am
by John McCluskey
24 poems, 3 short stories, 80 pages
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9986857-8-6
Library of Congress Control Number: 2019934432
Publisher: Summerfield Publishing, d.b.a. New Plains Press
To Order: https://newplainspress.com and/or Amazon.com
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
The poet John Keats once wrote, “If a sparrow come before my window I take part in its
existence and pick out the gravel.” Of his new collection, John McCluskey writes, “As
my life progressed it became obvious to me that who I am is very likely different from
who I think I am, and it takes experiences and interactions with others to reveal that.”
That’s where McCluskey’s intriguing title comes into play along with the Keatsian quote
above. The poet becomes one with the people closest to him, takes part in their lives
“picks out the gravel” of his shared experiences with those significant others who, over
time have shaped and defined him. The poet avers, “I listened most respectfully to their
I often do a pre-read of poetry books exploring the lay of the land through the titles poets
assign to poems in their collections. With titles like Green Apple Pie, The Unfinished is
Glorious and Shattering, Lemon Yellow Deep and Ice Cream and Mercy, who wouldn’t
want to get a pastry and a steaming cup of coffee, sit in a comfortable chair, just to
explore the content of great titles?
Themes and Form
I Will Listen If You Tell Me Who I Am, is not a boring book either in its themes or in its
forms. Visually the collection is a treat. It contains a nice mixture of poems which are
simply formatted flush left to the margin. I like the simplicity of presentation in these
poems. By way of contrast many poems feature an array of complex indentions. In
reading these poems I came to appreciate the art of reading poems slowly, savoring each
word, pausing when a word appears on a line by itself, then, having felt deeply the
intended impact of that word, I move on in concert with the poem’s progression. Result:
McCluskey’s faith in God pervades the collection. I will hasten to say that the poet’s faith
presentation is never gratuitous or overbearing. He is a man of faith; his faith has shaped
his life. Green Apple Pie channels the Great Depression where his family had little, but
somehow made do
My father prays to God
with remarkable fingernails.
They do not fan out
They are not pitted
They have no ridges
They are not chipped, bitten, or dirty—
each a perfect cuticle U.
In a child’s way, such details are remembered as small perfections rising out of the
sufferings that defined their lives, like the memory of his mother baking green apple pie
from the “load I carried home in my shirt.”
Joy reveals a young boy’s happiness tinged with regret that he did not share with his
father a moment of happiness even though his father spent Christmas in a Chicago
hospital battling tuberculosis
Children dotted alleys with new morning glee!
I am so happy for my father,
I should tell him so.
I should have told him
Thirty years ago.
These lines remind me of my own life, for some inexplicable reason I hold back a word, a
gesture that should have been offered but wasn’t. McCluskey, throughout the collection,
is able to hold two opposing thoughts in his mind at the same time—you can’t get much
truer to life than that.
You won’t want to skip over these gems: A Thousand Dimes is about Thanksgiving
weekend in South Holland, Illinois in 1965. I was intrigued with how the poet uses all
those dimes and was fascinated by “Big-Eyed Terry” and wondered why Matty and his
pals Jeff, Robby and Billy Bankowski were standing at the top of Drexel Avenue looking
up into the “furious snow”?
With a title like My Father in the Walls I wondered if this short fiction would turn out to
be a ghost story or perhaps a father keeping secret tabs on his children. Trust me on this
one: McCluskey writes about relationships. In this case, a divorce is pending which
threatens the all-important presence of the lad’s father in the home. Will the divorce
happen? If it does, how will Matty navigate the choppy waters of loss? This is current
stuff; this is where you and I live.
While all three stories resonate in compelling tones with me, Silent Night, hits me hardest
with its exploration of alcohol abuse within a family desperate to rise above its self-
imposed suffering. In a heart-felt line channeling the pain of so many caught in its grip,
Matty’s mother says, It’s not his fault. His father was so hard. McCluskey scores high
marks for the visual power and emotionally-charged presentation of a struggling family.
I return to where I began; to Keats’ dictum to “become” the very subjects you are writing
about. If this is you, if you appreciate writers who become one with their characters and
themes; click on the Amazon link above and order a copy of I Will Listen If You Will Tell
Me Who I Am.