Sasha Sings The Laundry On The Line
by Sean Thomas Dougherty
Published September 2010
Many years ago, I was driving down a street with a friend, a geneticist who used to play cello in a symphony. It was spring. I mentioned how beautiful the blossoming pear trees were. He agreed and pointed out that every tree was, from the genetic point of view, identical. I’d driven down that street for decades. But that day, I learned more than I actually saw. My vision was clarified and deepened.
Poetry is like that. When poetry works well, we learn more than we actually read. Such is the case with Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Sasha Sings The Laundry On The Line, recently published by BOA Editions.
Dougherty is a landscape artist. But the landscape is not one painted by Gainsborough. He’s more like Studs Terkel walking along Division Street in Chicago, describing immigrants and drug addicts, the denizens and detritus of urban America. For example, in the poem “Arbitrary Cities”, the poet describes broken glass in a gutter with perfect precision and clarity:
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 blue bottle 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…
In addition to his extraordinary observational abilities, Dougherty is a master craftsman, versatile in his style and original in his approach. In “Arbitrary Cities”, the author moves smoothly from the epistolary description quoted above to prose riffs without missing a beat. In other poems he has long passages of near-rhyme, and his four line elegy for Robert Creeley is unlike anything I’ve read before.
These are very complicated poems with many unexpected jumps and shifts. In the lovely and surprising “Dear Tiara”, every stanza begins with “I dreamed – “I dreamed I was a saint’s hair-shirt, sewn with the thread / of your saliva.” The poem “X” is much more enigmatic, in that every stanza begins with “X”:
X Vietnam veterans with shotguns …
X cops pushing mops, X machinists laid off …
X cafeteria workers and coal smoke …
X the broken traffic light in burnt-out Toledo. On the corner
some woman waiting in the rain for nothing we can name.
I’m not sure what X means. I’m not sure what exactly Dougherty is dreaming. I know this means what I’ve just read. I know this means more than what I’ve just read. Like a dream an analyst records, this is a poetry that goes straight from the artist’s unconscious mind to the unconscious mind of the reader, the poem itself being the means of relationship, the artifact that both holds the thought and everything the thought will become. Time and place become the geography of loneliness. “Dusk drifts like a terrible scream”, and the music becomes “the sound of someone / torn / being sewn.” Thus do we learn more than we actually read. Thus does the reader have, at least for a moment, clarity.