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Zackary Sholem Berger on Sean Thomas Dougherty

Broken Hallelujahs.  Boa Editions


Sean Thomas Dougherty has built a house and packed it full of “remember them” (to paraphrase a poem of his): room upon room of song, smell, death, and dance from the four corners and the mixed races of his family, and much else besides: from Jews to African-Americans to Poles. It is over the top, which means high-reaching. His forms are varied. The first section is prose poetry: Dougherty begins with the sentence (“a needle through your umbilical cord”), channels it through the voice of “broken graffiti […] pawnshop tickets […] locked puppets”, and introduces us to his mother’s grandparents (that’s a long umbilical cord!) who came from Budapest and the Ukraine, speaking Yiddish and Hungarian becoming broken English, strained through Dougherty’s sentences. “Canzone Sprayed with Graffiti” is a theme-and-variations: movement of and through the city (“A boy bends his body to the beat, pops his joints/ Into graffiti: Giotto reaching for an angel’s halo.” That’s the halo Dougherty’s reaching for, in this poem and throughout the book. There’s “light falling like Vermeer,” muscles like Michelangelo, a girl humming Beethoven’s Ninth. We get it: the city’s low dance is the high sublime. But this is too much, like being trapped in the European Art 1500-1850 wing of the art museum after closing time. So next, perhaps for lightness’s sake, is a charming sorbet of a poem, “Dear Pistachio”: “Lie down my shady lady-fern, my blue/bell, my/willow, my rapturous/rain-washed//radish.” His versatility saves him from preciousness.

The second section, “The Dark Soul of the Accordion,” eulogizes his grandfather, in a Dougherty way, that is - as if the soul were white light broken into multiple peoples by the prism of the poet’s eye. The spirit of Lorca (and Biggie Smalls, who appears later) mourns the Jew.

I’m tired but I have to move my feet. There’s plenty of music still to come. “Pas de Deux” is a couplet-catalog of dances, and this too is just one contrivance short of cutesy (“Do you Shinto on the roof/of a Pinto? Look spooky as you bless the Kabuki?”). Next is a form that Dougherty invented, the oberek. Soon after the reader is introduced to his father and that side of the family (“My Father’s Fro in the Mode of Romare Bearden,” one poem’s title calls out; now I know, after looking it up, that Bearden is a well-known painter of the Harlem Renaissance). There is “The Day Biggie Smalls Died,” but unlike O’Hara, Dougherty doesn’t stop breathing. (I don’t think he could, even for a second.) “Somewhere on Planet Earth” is another canzone, where hip-hop and bass and B-boys cradle and enliven the universe (“In the dream of the perfect headspin, the cosmos/is backed by a funky ass bass line, the comets/are double-helixing into Stradivarian strings” as the “B-boys uprock/and suicide flip”).

It’s a slim book but a large house.  I’ll have to re-enter it many times before I manage to wander through every room. I’m just not used to this much music. I don’t dance much. Reading these poems is like standing in the middle of a dance floor, or next to Dougherty himself reading (rapping) these poems with musical accompaniment. I’ll have to re-tune my ears to soak up this symphony; that’s not a bad thing.

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