Broken Hallelujahs, poems by Sean Thomas Dougherty
BOA Editions, 2007
Reviewed by Bernadette Geyer
Even when he is not writing directly on the subject of music (“The Day Biggie Smalls Died,” “Pas de Deux”), Dougherty is often basing his poetic forms on Polish waltzes (“Oberek,” “Oberek for Etheridge Knight”), or on the canzone, a form named for the Italian word for “song” (“Canzone Sprayed with Graffiti,” “The Long Waiting”). The canzone poetic form is similar to a sestina in that repetition is a primary feature. The form is very well used, as well as adapted, by Dougherty, especially in “Canzone Sprayed with Graffiti,” which repeats the themes of visual art, dance, text, music, and love. The formal heft of the canzone’s 12-line stanza balances out Dougherty’s rapid leaps from image to image:
To spin, pilate, Bolshoi leap, the limbs thin, choreographing
The wind, or the light falling like Vermeer, a portrait
The canvas squints, these boys in baseball caps with their radio
Transforming the block into yellow, green, red, breaking
The syntax of the sidewalk, re-inventing verbs
They pivot on one hand and become a new form—
A new thing sung through the bones, a new law of motion
The body didn’t know it could bend, a subway sonata,
A yellow taxi in A minor, an operatic move to the hoop
Chanted tenor, they are the shadows’ rest when it rains,
For what is the wind’s thrush through the leaves, pigeons
Cooing for black bread scattered by Babushka’s hands?
Images from an “old world” surface frequently in Dougherty’s collection, referencing his Hungarian ancestry. “The Dark Soul of the Accordion,” a long prose poem, is especially moving in its melding of historic details (There were accordions on the Death trains…Smashed accordions littered the barbed-wire ditches upon arrival.) with the poet’s meditation on his grandfather’s death (I couldn’t help staring at the tubes, the oxygen tank beside him like a nightmare. I couldn’t help wanting to hold him and yet he looked so fragile, thin as paper. Thin as wind.)
It is refreshing to read a collection of contemporary poetry that doesn’t revolve around a single theme or poetic conceit, but which draws equally from family, history, popular culture, and social issues. If you think you know what kind of poetry to expect from a performance poet, expect to be surprised and delighted by Dougherty’s Broken Hallelujahs.
Bernadette Geyer is the author of the chapbook What Remains (Argonne House Press). Her poems have appeared in The Midwest Quarterly, Hotel Amerika, South Dakota Review, Rattle, and elsewhere. Geyer lives in Vienna, Virginia, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.