Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line by Sean Thomas Dougherty
BOA Editions, 2010
Review by Marcus Myers
Somewhere, I forget which essay, maybe in “The Poet”, Emerson writes how a poet generates her best poetic energies close to home, upon leaving home or returning to it. This makes sense once you realize what a lyric poem is: a lyric poem, like a song, is not only a familiar voice filling the silence between our bodies and the world, but it is also a universalizing language as true as a heartbeat against our cheek, as beautiful and soothing as a mother’s voice to a nervous child. When the world isn’t quiet, when the voices clamor or get drowned out by machines, a lyric poem rides along on the noise and shows us, bodily, ways of making sense of it. A certain kind of poem hangs these sounds out like shirts and pants and socks between the highest stories, lines of words patterned between our hearing and seeing and speaking with one another, and asks us to register the songs of joy and sorrow heard there. In Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line, Sean Thomas Dougherty, a self-described underground sound, makes music of his comings and goings, of his staying home for a while and then traveling out into the world again.
Dougherty’s book, his eleventh, was written during a difficult transitional period. The book’s back-story, each beat of which informs the poems, goes something like this: In 2007 the poet endured several traumas—one nearly resulted in the shooting death of his son. He left his teaching position and moved into a two room apartment in the East Side of Erie, Pennsylvania. Two years passed while Dougherty recuperated; all the while he listened to the sounds of his neighbors, helped a friend recover from a heroin addiction, had a daughter with this friend, and began writing a group of poems as if he were channeling the heart of Walt Whitman and the social consciousness of Philip Levine. (At the end of this time, he traveled, as a visiting poet, to the Balkans on the State Department’s dime.) As he puts it, “More than anything I listened. I listened to my walls. I listened to the silence. I listened to my neighbor Sasha, and I wrote as she hung her laundry on the line.” A book of regeneration, this book shows one way of survival—the lyric modality’s preoccupation with desire and joy, with its insistence on locating the harmonies in our surroundings, on making music out of all the noise.
The first poem “Arias” sets the tone and its directional imagery serves as a sort of compass rose for the whole book. Written in couplets, the poem moves us through the street at ground level, and we observe the action from the ground but watch and listen as the collective human ephemera rises above the rooftops:
Pavarotti is dead and the streets are full of arias,
my brother. Every window a tenor leans,
there are sopranos in the olive branches.
And all across the globe the world
turns to crescendos. Along Parade Street the day passes.
The Russian women lean on their steps, discussing
the price of cabbages. The boys with tattoos
ride their skateboards, skipping curbs,
and there is a music to their wheels, a screech,
a scat and scatter, a turntable cutting La Boheme.
Throughout this first section of the poem, the images shift focus from specific details close to the ground before rising up and out into the world at large. And the specific nouns multiply to make collage-like patterns of visual and auditory imagery, composing a song of the city out of disparate yet associated elements. Reading the first ten lines we might imagine, for example, the reality of the poem shimmering sublimely behind the speaker’s tear-stained register: all the streets filled with people singing; a tenor in every window; sopranos seated high in the olive branches; the planet Earth seen from space set to a solo human voice singing, rising to meet our intensity; and then instantaneously back down to a street view, where Russian women discuss the price of produce and skater kids grind songs from the sidewalk. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker reveals he has been watching the Pavarotti funeral procession on television (broadcast live on CNN in September of 2007), allowing these images to mix with sounds from his street, “Where my hands are holding my face, / …the streets full / of the crowd, gathering to give witness/ to what burned their chests and told them / the true name of sorrow. When we weep / we are most alive. I turn off the television / and listen to Sasha upstairs.” The last lines of the poem establish the book’s thematic baseline: “…a song, a kind of blessed noise, the way music / enters us and vanishes. What remains is why we live.”
While the speaker’s neighbor Shasha has cameo appearances throughout the book, her biggest appearance is in a poem toward the middle. In “Arbitrary Cities,” a long poem in both lineated verse and prose, the speaker writes to her as the recipient of a letter. Here the speaker sees her as a person in possession of an old world sort of connection to suffering and redemption, as an archetypal ancestral figure capable of helping him sing:
there is a blue bottle broken by the gutter
of our apartment house on Parade Street,
on the edge of the blue light lilted frozen lake,
a bottle blue as blue lake glass, ice blue its song
its ice blue broken song, this stolen prayer,
how neither of us will lift it to our lips like a flute
and blow a song for the children
playing hopscotch on the sidewalk
next summer on a day no one was shot,
a song for the blackbirds gliding over the frozen fields, fields
like in the black earth
of our ancestors and the black-earthed bones
of our dead. Sasha, how many songs
are such broken things?
His upstairs neighbor, the speaker listens to her shuffling along the floorboards overhead, “like breath across the page of a book,” and he watches her out the window hanging laundry. He writes “I have seen you in your sorrow / in the backyard, with the basket of clothes // by your bare ankles, seen you kneel down and become / stuck,… // as you begin to weep I felt ashamed to watch, / and then just as sudden you rose to sing // the laundry line of notes, humming the sound / that might be the frequency a distant quasar / makes as it is born.” This “laundry line of notes” makes the song of the city palpable, registering a spiritual frequency of sound—the sound of a person’s voice rising above the scattering of broken things.
Dougherty explores this theme in dozens of other poems just as fully felt throughout the book. It’s hard to imagine a bigger-hearted collection than Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line. If only more poets had the courage and fortitude to fashion poems out of the people they know and love, as well as the strangers they see and hear day to day….