Scything Grace (Sean Thomas Dougherty)

Dougherty, a master when it comes to titles, has encapsulated this collection perfectly with its title, “Scything Grace.” The juxtaposition of those two words not only signifies the content of this work – narratives (of a kind) of people who move through the world, because they need to, like a scythe, but do so with a grace that’s often not appreciated, if it’s seen at all. The title also tells the reader something about Dougherty’s style. He’s unafraid to put words together that are not usually in the same sentence, much less adjacent. In doing so, he creates new meanings to describe the world he sees.

And this book, like the others of his that I’ve read, is a kind of poetry of witness. I think it’s always present in his work, but it stood out here for some reason. Generally, to say we’ve witnessed something implies that we’ve seen something both dramatic and traumatic. But “[h]ow often what is loudest never makes a noise.” What Dougherty is interested in here are the ordinary challenges that ordinary people face in what’s often perceived to be their ordinary lives. But for Dougherty, to witness them is to appreciate them with his words. He is able “[t]o see the if, on a damp, gray afternoon.”

We live in “[t]he museum of aloneness” and this aloneness is akin to “pushing a grocery cart across the grocery store parking lot at 3 AM.” But Dougherty, in his poem, “Orphaned,” writes that [n]othing that is not alone interests me.” We are guided by “[a] hallway of maps leading nowhere.” We know that “things don’t fall when they should and break apart when they shouldn’t and come back together again” and Dougherty has questions about this. “What is the road you’re building” he asks. “How can we ignore the ugliness to embrace the unexpected?” In “Ode to Nobody You Know,” he wants to know, “Why can we only see happiness when it’s on fire?”

We are not seeing or witnessing what’s in front of us, like “[t]he smell of Chinese food, floating around the corner where a child kicks a ball” and the way listening to Thelonious Monk makes you feel. This will allow us to begin “[t]o undo the days of not loving ourselves.” When we are “lost in the forest of what did not happen,” Dougherty tells us, “you begin again, begin in the present tense, and the patter of children.”

“Receive me as I receive myself,” he implores. Despite some of his past actions (which he recounts in some of the poems here), “Nothing was shattered. My daughter was running across the long dead grass. The sunlight was absently everywhere.” Similarly, at the end of “Ode to Nobody You know,” he reminds us: “The night is never everywhere. And now, far off in the fragrant darkness, the trees are tremulous with bloom.”

I am likely not doing this collection justice. His proofreaders didn’t and that’s a minor annoyance. But mostly, you should heed Dougherty’s words when you read this collection. “Read slowly: there must be something here to save you.”

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.

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