I saw Harry Belafonte in concert once and he said, “My mother always told me to only sing songs that I love because you never know what’s going to be your big hit.” He then went on to sing “The Banana Boat Song” – you know the ‘Day-o’ one – and I felt badly for a moment before singing along with him as loudly as I could. That came to mind as I read Sean Thomas Dougherty’s “Biography of LeBron as Ohio.” It is an epic masterpiece that I first heard, to continue the poetry and music thing, when the remarkable poet Reginald Dwayne Betts did a cover version before reading some of his own work. In short, I hope Dougherty loves that poem because I imagine he can’t really get off stage without reading it. I, for one, would be holding up my lighter and chanting for it as an encore.
What’s most impressive in this collection is Dougherty’s range, from the opening invocation, “Why Bother?” that will absolutely just stop you in your tracks to the manifesto that is “In the Absence of Others I Wanted Something Brave.” He writes –
We live in a time where every theory is a failure. . . When cops kill us and the government has slave detention camps up and down the border, and men in dark suits like white hoods make profits.
And Dougherty, a master of titles, does speak of cop killings in the very next poem and knows when to keep his titles simple. In “Tamir Rice,” the narrator cannot or does not answer his daughter who ask, “Why did the policeman shoot the boy? He was playing.” The response comes not in the form of words, but an image of a playground. “The swing,” Dougherty writes, “hangs itself slowly in the dark.”
Put that image together with the “men in dark suits like white hoods” from the previous poem.
But this collection is not all darkness; indeed, light is a recurring motif throughout. “Youngstown Monologue” concludes this way: ‘I know to live inside this fragile skin / is to be the light captured by stained glass.” And in “Poem Made of East Sides,” Dougherty writes, “The only light we have in our lives is the light from broken glass. / Nothing that is whole is art.”
And, I would suggest, Dougherty suggests several times in several ways that nothing that is whole is human. Near the end of “Rain, Gas, Boone County, West Virginia,” his narrator says –
I try to forget the load I carry / Is what can’t be left behind
And in “Toledo, Ohio, 1977” –
We know the scars you can’t see are the ones that last.
And to be human is to love. If you don’t find yourself in “Scribbled on the Scaffolding Of” (see what I mean about titles) or “You are Beautiful as the Absence of Air” (which I will now teach in conjunction with the Shakespearean sonnet that begins My mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun) or you don’t recognize the brilliance of “kissing you was like eating Lucky Charms and watching cartoons on a rainy Saturday,” then I’m not sure you’ve ever been in love.
So there is a range here, of light and dark, of life and death. Someone is “blooming into nothing that could stay” and Dougherty speaks of one of his poems as “this autopsy I start with words.” What’s certain is, like Susan Aizenberg says in the epigraph, Dougherty doesn’t “know how to make things ordinary anymore.” And that’s what I love about his work. And that’s why I needed it right now. Because he reminds me that I should “never forget. To shape a breath. The chest must rest. Before it rises.”