The second of these three poems by Sean Thomas Dougherty, “Like Gauze” includes an epigraph from “The Spell of the Leaves” by Larry Levis: “But when I think of her, nothing has happened yet.” Such an epigraph is undoubtedly important when placed next to Dougherty’s beautiful work, for no living poet to my mind has so deeply reconciled that troublesome interrogative that Levis posited in “The Perfection of Solitude: A Sequence”: “What does it mean, American?” These poems along with many others in Dougherty’s impressive volume do not shy away from the question of the Artist’s role in relation to the larger political, social, and cultural conundrums of contemporary America. Dougherty’s speaker does not self-deprecate or “apologize” when challenging the inequities, malignancies, and abuses of power in America today.
Last month, Noam Chomsky released an ambitious and brilliant essay in the Boston Review
. The key word in the subtitle of Chomsky’s article is privilege. That is, the imperative of “using privilege to challenge the state.” As it pertains to Dougherty’s work, the only privilege I see is the privilege to be alive, to feed a family, to work and manufacture and reward the body’s labor with a job well done and a living wage, to experience and reiterate memorable art, and to liberate and stand up for those who lack a formidable venue to express their anguish. It is a lack of privilege, in other words, other than the great gift to be alive. The music of Dougherty’s poems is not in the concert halls on Broadway or the chamber orchestra’s rendition of Handel or Vivaldi. Instead, Vivaldi would show up in a Dougherty poem on a scratchy AM radio station or a coveted vinyl record underneath a well-worn turntable’s needle. His music is the music of pool balls colliding in smoky billiard halls, of Ella Fitzgerald and Patsy Cline (as in his poem here, “Who Labored”), or of Macedonian hip-hop ballads. I read Dougherty’s “Like Gauze” and I remember thirty drinkers in the Belmar, a quaint establishment in upstate New York, singing along with “Come out Ye Black and Tans” by the Wolf Tones on the jukebox. His poems are often situated in Erie, PA, but they seem to span the entirety of the Rust Belt and evoke the ghosts of whoever labored throughout Toledo, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Syracuse.
It is not only Dougherty’s challenge to the state that I find so impressive, nor is it his collection of cool and funky hats (Watch him read on You-Tube. The guy can rock a bad-ass hat, no joke!), nor is it his affinities with poets such as Larry Levis, Vladimir Mayakovksy, or Lynda Hull—poets who perished at the height of their respective careers, leaving us to regard their messages as that much more valuable. Instead, modesty and humility drive this work. It is said that the true revolutionary is never motivated by hatred and loathing, but by genuine and incomparable feelings of love for his people and their land. I certainly find that to be the case in a poem like “The Little Bird that Rattled,” where Dougherty’s speaker concludes: “perhaps we need to/when doing nothing/like the dishes/every now and then/for them/mutter/something—”.
the room smelled
her later years,
kind that could
what we learned
for the afterlife
I searched the house
somehow you knew
But when I think of her, nothing has happened yet.
A theory of addicts. Not a theory,
but the way they bend
on the bench/more
than a theory/
friction, the spark
of the lighter
against the edge of a cigarette.
The deep inhale, pause,
then exhale. A theory of. Grace, dense
and holy. Grandeur
of the Opera Café in Budapest, the high gold ornamentation
where we drank coffee, ate Dobos pastry, talked to no one
but stared into the mirrors at strangers.
A strung out theory.
on the Green line at fourteen, a Red Socks cap,
a shamrock inked on my wrist,
the year you were born.
To disappear is to theory. To leave is a theory. Which is it?
Solitude of standing before a locked door.
Have I seen you, is a theory
different from I have seen you. Seen you. Shift like light
across a window. Syllables, signs, supplications, on a night
along the docks when the snow becomes shapes casting medieval
To fade is a theory of what-is-almost-isn’t.
evaporating into apprehension
of my speechless hands:
(“To theory” attempts to predict what is
before it’s proved)— a cavernous splendor
I leaned into:
In the Bartender’s cloth swiping clouds
was a theory of your face—
The Little Bird That Rattled
her air conditioner was trying to stay cool/got sucked in, and for a while
its dying/was filling the rooms/she slept in/how often this happens in ways
we never hear /the clatter never finds us/so we cannot at least/ hold
the tiny feathered /song in our palms/and grieve it gone/offer it a word/ or
two/ like a prayer/ wrap it in a paper towel/or bury it in the backyard/ dirt
we dig /and in this way/we honor what was lost/ it is not this/ too
often/the silent/ losings pass us/ unawares/perhaps we need to/when doing
nothing/ like the dishes/every now and then/for them/mutter/something—