by Sean Thomas Dougherty
Etruscan Press (2013)
Reviewed by Melissa Dickson
A benign manila envelope arrives in the mailbox—inside, a book; on the book’s cover, a genderless figure in jeans and a black top. The photograph’s exposure produces a decapitation as the head and face disappear. There, in the dark nether regions of the image, a title: Scything Grace.
From the opened pages falls the publisher’s note, “Enjoy!”
It might better have said “Endure!” …exclamation point intact.
Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Scything Grace doesn’t ask a reader to enjoy. It asks for company inside the dark hall of loss. It offers itself “heavy with grief,” and serves a brew of sorrow: contemplative, savage, and enduring. Here is a child unborn, a marriage in tatters, dead friends, drug addicts and drunks, victims of the AIDS epidemic, homeless lovers, gambling addicts. Here is “a hallway of maps leading nowhere.” Here is a man alone with memory, disappointment, a vision of an unfulfilled future, and the “seven deaths I carry every day.”
“[I]f not for my shadow,” writes Dougherty in “This Ongoing Elegy to Everything,” “I would not have seen another human figure today.” So it seems throughout Scything Grace. The poems’ speakers are surrounded by shadows named and unnamed, born and unborn, compromised, lost, forgotten, dead. Here, in this “neighborhood of ghosts,” comes a kind of beauty and pathos that can only be endured. Dougherty’s song is not Amazing Grace, redemptive and whole; it is Scything Grace, brutal and riven.
In “Confessional Poem,” he writes “I too haven’t been born,” as if the accumulated loss has negated any possibility of being, living, beyond loss. The poem “Sonogram” begins:
You want to say the bell to a trumpet. A hollow sound. The sound of
whole. Whole as a loaf of bread, and the hungry sound that
It is the emptiness and loss, the tragedy, which becomes tangible in these poems. What’s gone is itself the artifact; what it leaves behind—its absence—becomes the material possession accumulated and catalogued in Scything Grace.
Several lines later “Sonogram” continues:
A thumb-sized sound.
That small. That full of losing. How large it grows. And you are lost
in the forest of what did not happen.
The ideas of loss and of being lost are entwined motifs throughout the book. The poem “No Forwarding” concludes, “my last known address remains your face—“ The m-dash leading into the desolate remains of the page.
Maps, destinations, departures, and the departed all commingle in Dougherty’s tour of hurt. In “Triptych from the Dictionary of Dead Letters” the speaker asks “The story goes to what geography? What map?” “Poem Written in the Margins of an Eclipse” ends “we have no map to offer. To travel our/weeping labyrinths.” In “Drugs in Perfect Jars” the map becomes “a lithograph”:
a lithograph of the city swept
from your elaborate self, from its crumbling
ramparts of someone else watching the rain
slowly scything through the darkening trees.
In Scything Grace, place is a state of being, and states of being become places as in the prose poem “Orphaned:”
my life is an abandoned farmhouse at night I stare through the beams
of my roof. I stare passed [sic] the fabulous constellations. Nothing that is
not alone interests me.
The metaphysical idea of alone-ness, or abandonment, becomes a physical manifestation in nearly every poem of Scything Grace. The final poem, a prose poem titled “Your Voice is a Right Cross,” is no exception:
[…] We carry those invisible seams throughout
the day. And how in the house of done, the house of leaving, the house
of left, something remains. Another kind of music embroidered in the
threaded air, in the sentiment of a lover’s look, in the sound of freight
trains coupling, or the long drive up to Detroit…
But here there also seems to be a parting volley that rings of hope: “what I mean to/say is we have survived, unexpectedly sighed, crowbarred and jabbed,/if our arms are a house, how lucky we are we take turns being the roof:”
The colon at the bitter end of the collection signals back toward the first page, where the cycle of loss and survival begins again. Were it not for Dougherty’s charismatic voice, rhythmic syntax, and vivid imagery, the heartbreak would be unendurable. This is the gift Dougherty grants readers of Scything Grace: you will know pain; you will know loss; you will “Endure!”
Buy this book. : Etruscan Press (2013)
ABOUT MELISSA DICKSON
Melissa Dickson’s poetry has appeared in Shenandoah, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, Cumberland River Review, Southern Women’s Review, and Literary Mama. She is a 2015 Pushcart nominee for Shenandoah and Cumberland River Review. Her collections Sweet Aegis, Medusa Poems (Negative Capability Press) and Cameo (New Plains Press) were published in 2013 and 2011. She holds an MFA in Painting from The School of Visual Arts (1995) and an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College (2012).