May 20, 2011

Review by Michael Schmeltzer

SASHA SINGS THE LAUNDRY ON THE LINE
by Sean Thomas Dougherty

BOA Editions, Ltd.
250 North Goodman Street, Suite 306
Rochester, NY 14607
ISBN 978-1-934414-39-2
2010, 80 pp., $16.00
www.boaeditions.org

I read hundreds of pages of poetry in any given month. I also listen to a profane amount of rap and hip hop. As much as I like Eminem and Lil Wayne, I believe certain mash-ups (like adding their diction into a Li-Young Lee or Gregory Orr poem) are simply ridiculous. Twisting slang and high diction puts a taste like caviar and pork rinds in my mouth. So whenever I read a few pages of Sean Thomas Dougherty’s beautifully titled book of poems, Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line, I can’t help but shake my head. I wonder if it’s the thug who wants to be a poet, or the poet who wants to be a thug. There’s a reason why dictionary.com and urbandictionary.com haven’t merged. That reason is exemplified in Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line. Plain and simple, this particular Jekyll and Hyde remix doesn’t work.

BOA Editions rarely steers me wrong. Plus, how could one not be attracted to such a musical and emotionally evocative title? I thought Dougherty’s book would be a gorgeous and lyrical tribute to a person and/or place. In a way I was right, except the tribute feels aimed more toward the self than anyone else. I read page after page of preachy, self-indulgent poems that were as much boast from the speaker as they were praise for the wonderfully diverse and detailed urban environment Dougherty observes (which, I admit, he has a keen eye for). These poems spoke at me, not within me.

The biggest problem I have with Dougherty’s poetry is an issue of authenticity/sincerity. I find the narrator of these poems to be completely unreliable. He’s just too earnest for his own good. When attempting tragedy, the poems feel sensational, not sad. When attempting celebration, they feel like ego, not pride. Dougherty tries to convince by means of hyperbole, and when using hyperbole, he forgets there’s nothing more convincing than a little self-depreciation, humor, or irony (aka: perspective, emotional complexity). For example, his list of friends in the poem “Without Making a Noise” read more like a soap opera or noir than poetry:

                                                                       My friends: Garry drowned
in a quarry. Jolie dead of cancer. Shaun in Walpole State Prison.
Brucie in a Nevada Prison. Roger in a Tennessee Prison. Why
expand? You know the story. Drugs, federal statutes, mandatory
five years. Gun possession.

He asks the reader why expand, and yet he does. He goes on to mention a shooting, a rape, torture, murder, etc. With each new tragedy I find myself going numb, becoming bored. Simply listing these miserable Macguffins without delving further into the characters dulls the intended effect. The flat characters cushion the emotional impact. Despite giving them names, they felt like statistics without the benefit of a percentage sign.

In other instances Dougherty turns his particular music to melodrama:

                  On a day that it is cold out,
                  the kind of cold that kills
the kind of cold where some kid sledding
always finds a man frozen in the park dead.

(“At the Intersection of Parade and Punk”)

                                         The arbitrary cities
of our lives will go on long after I am gone

from this two-story tenement on the edge
of the frozen lake in this rusty town

of abandoned factories and cheap diners,”

(“Arbitrary Cities”)

A dead body? Vacant factories and crummy diners? Frozen lake in a rusty town? It doesn’t take much to see the problems of a poet don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Honestly, I expect these lines from Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe. This is pulp, not poetry.

In the same vein, injected throughout the poems are numerous drug and booze references. In “The Opposite of Elegy,” when the speaker states:

When you were strung out

and I kissed you
I imagined your mouth

a mound of cocaine

I don’t believe it. Later in the same poem when he states:

Some nights we fucked so

slowly I dissolved
like a Quaalude in a glass

of vodka

I immediately want to call his bluff. How many drug, alcohol, and/or slang references does it take to prove the speaker street savvy? I don’t know, but Dougherty probably triples it. The speaker is the drunk at the bar, bravado in overdrive. One minute he’s bragging, the next he’s weeping (a favorite, overused word of Dougherty’s). No one really likes that guy.

When he’s not drowning you with weeping, Dougherty tries to impress the reader with how “bad ass like blackjack or Cadillac or Billy Jack or Bruce Lee” he is. Although he can be extremely versatile in his pacing and rhythms, more often than not the gerunds run amok, his rhymes (slant or otherwise) lack creativity, and his poems degenerate to terrible, terrible spoken word sound bites:

X cafeteria workers and coal smoke. Who ain’t broke? Who ain’t
             X’d?

Who ain’t waiting for that last severance check?

(“X”)

Or a page later:

When you walk on my block, I’ll jack your thesis (just more
feces).–don’t believe this? You’re funded by Guggenheim;
I’m funded by wind chimes and cheap wine, carpenter’s nails
and Kool-Aid.

(“X”)

Don’t believe this? No, I absolutely don’t believe any of this. It’s like my father just walked in wearing a Tupac t-shirt. Actually, I do believe one thing; I think cheap wine definitely funded the making of these poems. On a related aside, in the notes at the end of the book, Dougherty writes “X” was written as a response to “too many of my too careerist peers.” He condemns them for “kissing up to the grant giving ruling class.” This coming from a poet who has been awarded a Fulbright Lectureship to the Balkans from the US State Department and two Pennsylvania Council for the Arts fellowships in poetry. Something about that just doesn’t sit well with me, but I digress…back to the poetry.

Another poem, “Dear Tiara,” comes across as a bunch of one-liners aimed at a stripper from the drunkest of patrons. If that’s the case, I wish that was made explicit. I would’ve liked this poem very much, and yes, would’ve even related to it. Some cringe-worthy lines include: “I dreamed I was a library fine, I’ve checked you out / too long so many times,” “I must’ve dreamed I was a nail, because I awoke beside you still / hammered,” and my personal favorite, “I must’ve dreamed I was gravity, I’ve fallen for you so damn hard.”

Earlier I mentioned how humor would’ve benefited his poems. Dougherty does use humor (using phrases like “Bling Bling brake!” and “mofoing” can’t be anything but humor). However, each instance tends to come with a smug smirk and/or street reference. So many times these pop/youth culture references undercut his lyric maturity. When the speaker says a seemingly simple and elegant phrase like “The young boys slinging rocks began to sing,” (“The House of Fragments”) I honestly don’t know if he means they’re selling crack or literally throwing rocks. It may be both, but either way, it pulls me out of the poem. More than anything, though, I wish Dougherty’s poems were more emotionally complex and morally ambiguous. His gritty and raw world seems rather black and white.

And speaking of black and white, I want to briefly discuss the question of identity and race. I praise Dougherty for incorporating race and socio-economic concerns into his work (topics rarely covered and rarely done well), but I ask, in all sincerity, what does it mean or imply when a poet writes things such as “The year the police shot how many Black boys dead,” (“The House of Fragments”) and then later states, “A handful of seconds/ he [the speaker’s dog] was sprawled beside me on the white man’s lawn” (“Without Making a Noise”). Specifically, what does it mean when a poet writing these things is, for all intents and purposes, a “white man,” one who capitalizes black and not white? Once again, something I can’t quite put my finger on is not settling well with me. In my more cynical moments, I feel Dougherty is capitalizing on and exploiting a neighborhood and culture he doesn’t (or no longer) belongs to. In my optimistic moments, I feel he is an advocate, a celebrant of all those he considers brothers and sisters.

I admit my critiques against Dougherty’s poetry may seem harsh at times. Dougherty evokes in me many things, but the negative impulse comes first and foremost from a place that’s filled with complete admiration and respect for the handful of poems in the book that I’m absolutely in awe of. At times Dougherty’s use of rhythm, repetition, and rhyme (slant and/or full), can be hypnotic. “What We Were Given” is a lesson in what a poet can do with repetition and sound.

               When the tea kettle steamed,
steamed through the walls and no one stopped it.
             When the spring sky was full of kites,
but the only bird she found was wounded.

The poem just spirals downward and pulls you right along with it. It does this in a way that’s natural and compelling. It’s skillfully done. Dougherty also has an acute eye for detail. When all these factors are in sync, when Dougherty doesn’t undercut his lyric intensity with a need to prove his street cred, the final product is stunning. The poem “After” is another fine example. His lovely descriptive talent balances the raw edge of his world. The tension between the two is masterfully crafted.

The wind moving the hairs on my arm

like human breathing.
A blue jay stealing eggs

in the boysenberry tree.
The shadows asleep in their beds.

He continues on to an absolutely wonderful scene.

And then the garbage can
I bent to lift up, covered with maggots.

So I pulled it out to the sun
and by late afternoon

they were white husks, the finches pecking
the last ones for the nestlings’ upturned mouths.

Dougherty just turned sickening rot into sustenance, not just for the nestlings but for the reader. This, I believe, is what Dougherty wanted to do throughout the book, but this poem did it in a subtle, interesting way. Other fine examples are “My Neighbor Shadrack Has Been Coughing All Night Again” and a good 99% of “Arbitrary Cities.”

I can pull from any poem in this collection a line or two that is nearly perfect in its execution and intended effect. The problem is I can pull about five lines in the same poem that simply miss their mark and weaken the piece as a whole. There are many tremendous lines, but not many tremendous poems.

I will say this about Dougherty; he does not turn from the world around him. As poets we should all witness, and for that, Dougherty earns extremely high marks. Whether it’s the crumbling buildings, the singing birds, or the wild and broken people around him, he looks without flinching. He has a great eye for detail, an open ear for music (Bjőrk, Gogol Bordello, funk and jazz, rap, not to mention his own music which comes in the form of the lyric line, prose poems, fragments, collage, etc), and a mouth that can spit out the most impassioned verse to the most ridiculous slang. He stares directly into every abyss with his entire body and soul.

At the Lebanese market
where I do not turn away

from the lamb’s head
hanging from the window.

At its bulbous eye, at my own face
reflected in its black pupil.

(“After”)

Unfortunately, as the quote above demonstrates, when Dougherty stares at the world, too often we find him staring into his own face.

____________

Michael Schmeltzer earned an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. His honors include three Pushcart Prize nominations, the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry, Blue Earth Review’s Flash Fiction Prize, and the Artsmith Literary Award. He helps edit A River & Sound Review and has been published in Natural Bridge, Mid-American Review, Water~Stone Review, New York Quarterly, Crab Creek Review, and Fourteen Hills, among others. He can be contacted at: mschmeltzer01@yahoo.com.