For a time, I tried to be a fan of Jim Jarmusch’s movies, but I could only, at best, wrap my head around moments. Before I sat down to watch that one where, if memory serves (and it may not), Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, and Winona Ryder all play taxi drivers, I was intrigued by something I’d read in an interview. Jarmusch, not the most famous person born in Akron, said he was less interested in what happened in where we started and where we ended than what happened in between. Dougherty, who grew up in Ohio, captures this notion perfectly in Not All Saints. Consider the last five lines of “Against the Indifference of Angels” –
these passing eavesdrops
of strangers and things
that should be little more than minutes
except they’ve come to mean
everything impossibly that is love.
Life is in those taxi rides. We have to be aware that even the “passing passes” and it is too easy to find that “joy had been what we let loose to wander away from us, to leave us bit by bit, when we weren’t looking, when we were working, when we were raising our daughters and sons.” Before I return to what struck me as one of the central ideas in Dougherty’s collection, I want to pause to appreciate the way Doughterty makes a noun out of ‘eavesdrop,’ and I don’t know how to describe the phrase ‘everything impossibly,’ but it seems like the closest anyone can get to encompassing or defining love.
And while it would be (and will be) easy to spend paragraphs on the devastatingly gentle power of Dougherty’s insights, I want to make sure I celebrate his language as well. “[T]here is,” he tells us, “a grammar to remembrance, an alphabet to longing.” And that grammar and those letters are two of the ways he imagines the world. He also envisions the way his words appear: “I am a word / you are a word / clandestine / razor / typeface / a kind of calligraphy we read upon the clouds.” (When he writes that “birds cursive across the sky,” I resolved to use that phrase always.) And we are also “punctuation marks against the silence.” We try, Dougherty seems to be suggesting, with all of the limited tools at our disposal, to language ourselves into existence.
In Dougherty’s world, people are “shattered and broken,” and “fragile & broken” and we disappear, we die. And if we do not pay attention, we will be the narrator in “ER” who says
I am still reaching
for days after
there was only an outline
of where you were –
In addition to seeing, we must be seen. In the poem that follows “ER” called “If I Had Not Been Stillborn,” the narrator says –
I am the space of her empty arms, and when she turns
suddenly to look at nothing, I am the space in the air –
Both poems end in dashes. They remind me of the moment when Achilles tries to hug his friend, Patroclus, but finds his arms full of air. He was too busy, to adapt one of Dougherty’s own phrases, punching his own bruises to take care of his friend.
For some (including me), these dashes could easily lead to despair. But Dougherty seems to have found a kind of peace with the way of the world. In the epistolary prose poem, “The Black Flags of Our Bodies,” he seems to be trying to reassure a friend (and this is worth quoting at length):
All we / have are the songs and psalms we carry inside us. There is no curfew for love. . .
We blow our kisses to our children, smell the wind through their hair, and
you have to realize that this is life, this is all we get, that most of life is all this
suffering. . . We pummel the bag, we punch
the wall, This really is it brother. This thin air. That doesn’t stop and we just
keep going, doing what little we can for how few or many we can along the
way. That’s all God asks of anyone. He doesn’t ask for more.
“You see,” Dougherty concludes, “I am trying to tell you something, but no matter how I start it, I never quite get there. I return to what is around us.” (Indeed, so many of these titles of these poems include references to nature.) “But joy,” Dougherty continues, “keeps interrupting the familiar phenomes of grief digging my fingers into the earth.”
Dougherty’s uses all the tools at his disposal to make his world. (Is there an allusion to Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” here?) And it is in the process, in the action, in the digging, that the joy seems to be found. And in the end, if we gather all of the pieces of our broken selves and that shards of those we love, we will find that “what is damaged is closer to divine.”
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.