“Nothing that is whole is art.” writes Sean Thomas Dougherty in a poem toward the end of his 15th book, The Second O of Sorrow (BOA). It’s a declaration of aesthetics that could be applied to many of the poems in this book. It’s a collection filled with broken and incomplete things. Things rusted, ruined or held down by circumstances like a boot on the neck. The poems are replete with rundown towns, futures, people and relationships, and yet it’s an awe-inspiring collection that shows how a skilled hand can find light in the darkest things. It brings to mind the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, which asks that we look for beauty in the imperfect and impermanent.
The book is not divided into sections, but the collection opens with a number of poems exploring a connected narrative, that of a loved one facing a life-threatening illness. That narrative is introduced with the poem “What Do You Say to a Daughter When She Suspects Her Mother is Dying.” Dougherty switches between prose poems and stanzas, showing dexterity in the execution of both. The thread on illness continues for several more heartbreaking poems until the poem “In the Absence of Others I Wanted Something Brave” shifts the book into a different tone. That poem, coming a bit before the book’s midpoint, acts like both a self-profile and an ars poetica. In it you find lines like: “Or a poem could be the carburetor of the human heart. A carburetor that has not been cleaned, a carburetor full of gunk.” That poem, a commentary on contemporary poetry and po-biz, comes at a good place in the book, because after the series of suffering and loss, it delivers lines you want to spray paint in huge letters on the side of a barn.
From there the book moves into landscape and cityscape, into tales of neighborhoods and people, some from the past and some contemporary. We get Toledo and Youngstown. We get Pittsburgh and Carnegie. In these places we meet Crazy Larry the pool buddy, a woman belting out Aretha Franklin at a karaoke bar, and Frenchy who was “always leaking light.” This cast is treated with humanity and tenderness you can feel in the words. There’s also the beautiful, long prose poem, “In the Midnight Walking,” which is a stunning treatment on fathers and sons.
The book is a sort of collage of broken things, and Dougherty is an expert collagist. In the prose poem “Pittsburgh,” the speaker walks the streets of the western Pennsylvania city, itself a character in the poem, and lists places he passes, such as “heart-shaped graffiti sprayed onto dumpsters, corner bars named “Lou’s Corner Bar” and the people he encounters including a strung-out girl, a kid waiting for a bus and a poolhall friend.
And while collage is a style Dougherty uses throughout the book, he’s not content to let a string of images tell the tale on its own. He’s able to skillfully slip in a powerful metaphor, often when you don’t expect it, such as at the ending in “Toledo, Ohio, 1977” which after introducing a series of kids from the 70s, especially Fanny, the tough girl, he tells us she “already knew the metric system for starlight. The calculus for getting out--”
There’s a sense of earned grace to the language of these poems. Sometimes he pushes the boundaries with ornate statements like “the wound on her mother’s foot is the songbird of the bees,” (which incidentally reminds me of Pittsburgh native Jack Gilbert’s line “my heart is as helpless as crushed birds”) or the incantatory sequence in “The Bravery of Birds” that reads in part: “The light of pills. The color of nausea. The color of sunlight for the crippled and the lame? To get up each day despite hopelessness.” Yet he’s never talking beyond the reader. In every moment where plain speech hits a transcendent pitch, the poetry makes room for the reader to walk alongside. It’s both a humble a and confident language.
Readers who’ve encountered Dougherty before will find themselves in familiar territory, though each book is its own neighborhood, with its own character and characters. Does this survey of the broken and incomplete lead to an eventual triumph or resolution? No, of course not, because it’s not a made-for-TV movie. It’s more than enough to just be reminded that they exist, and need to be acknowledged and are offered up in beautiful language. The final poem in the book begins with the words “Sometimes I am okay” and that’s the world we live in.
More about Dougherty at https://seanthomasdoughertyp.fatcow.com/
About Grant Clauser: A Pennsylvanian, Clauser is the author of four poetry collections: Reckless Constellations, The Magician’s Handbook, Necessary Myths (winner of the 2013 Dogfish Head Poetry Award), and The Trouble with Rivers. His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, New Ohio Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Tar River Poetry and others. He’s an editor at The New York Times’ Wirecutter website and teaches in the Rosemont College Writers’ Studio. Find him on Twitter @uniambic