- The Second O of Sorrow by Sean Thomas Dougherty
If you were to enter a dimly lit dive bar with a decent but well-travelled pool table in Erie, Pennsylvania, I suspect it would not be a total surprise to stumble upon Sean Thomas Dougherty, leaning over the side of the table, pool cue in-hand, lining up his next shot. The Second O of Sorrow, according to Dougherty's bio, represents the sixteenth book he has authored or edited. Learning that The Second O of Sorrow centers itself around the Rust Belt's working-class—and being acquainted with the local rust of Pittsburgh's poetry—I felt excited to explore an unfamiliar voice. The title poem contains [End Page 215] the lines, "I breath the dirty East Side wind / pushing past the Russian church" Here, something felt like home; if not home, home's distant cousin. I wondered what sensations such a regional poet might bring into the world. Especially, since the election in 2016, the Rust Belt's people seem especially deserving of an understanding and reimagining beyond what journalism and reporting provide.
The first poem, titled "Why Bother?," greets its reader with an introspective question and answer:
Because right now, there is someoneout there witha wound in the exact shape of your words.
The sentiment can be read as bold and encouraging, warm and inviting, as the structure causes its reader to work to navigate the sentence suspended in white space. The form also allows the poem to feel precise while carrying a simple message: to persist. This poem is the exception to Dougherty's typical prose poems and long-lined free verse that follow standard margins.
The voices in Dougherty's poems are often more tender than unsentimental, more often rhapsodic and raw than polished (think: "first thought, best thought"); as the title portends, the tone feels melancholic throughout, though occasionally humor and the comedic gush forward. Across The Second O of Sorrow, recurring themes include masculinity and fatherhood, nostalgia, marriage and divorce, death, and the odd complaint or corrective (depending on your point of view) about why and how poetry has lost its moorings.
For instance, the prose poem, "Far from Any Classroom" begins "far from the talk of writers about writing…." The poem continues, moving rhythmically to montage post-industrial images and symbols; for instance: "…the carapace of the steel mill in Youngstown,…", "…sirens and singed sleeves,…", and "…someone is lacing up their work boots for the last shift before they are laid off…" with the refrain, "far from," repeating and varying. At the poem's conclusion, Dougherty leads his reader into more abstract territory with clipped sentences: "…a few AM psalms. Is all we need to keep going. Without sorrow is to become something more than sorrow. Never forget. To shape a breath. The chest must rest. Before it rises." As Ben Lerner argues in The Hatred of Poetry, perhaps, poems like these attack poetry's failures because noticing the gaps helps us realize and aspire to a more perfect poem that, even if it only exists in our imagination, is worth pursuing. Similarly, while I appreciate the collage-effect and the poem's impulse to create a poem from life's daily happenings and disappointments, here, I want to feel brought closer to the steel mill, sirens, and work boots; to move far from the classroom with the poet rather than be made aware of poetry's shortcomings. Having heard of Pittsburgh's sooty glory days for most of my childhood, I am often wary of nostalgia that seems to idolize the parts of the past. In the Rust Belt, we always seem to be broken and rebuilding.
Motifs of feeling pride in a wounded place return in the poem, "Biography of LeBron as Ohio," which perhaps expresses some of these complexities most fully, painting Cleveland's basketball superstar as a folk hero. One my favorite moments in this poem that tumbles across three pages, reads "He is wearing a shirt that says I Can't Breathe./ They said he was arrogant. I...