The Second O of Sorrow
by Sean Thomas Dougherty Review

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The Second O of Sorrow Book CoverSean Thomas Dougherty, The Second O of Sorrow, Boa Editions, 250 Goodman Street, Suite 306, Rochester, N.Y. 14607, 72 pages, 2018, $18-

The Second O of Sorrow. Prior to reading this extraordinary work, I had never thought about breaking down the parts of a word for emotional content.  Syntactical considerations, maybe, semantic ones, yes, but pain, never.  As I read Sean’s poem, “What Do You Say to a Daughter When She Suspects Her Mother Is Dying”, I knew what the second O stood for. O.....think about it.

“The inexpressible. The sorrow. The Impossible. Pain.
Man I said to myself. O Man. O Man.”

As I read these poems I thought of Peter Handke’s brilliant, tortured, autobiographical novella, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. I thought of the helplessness of the son who cannot prevent his mother’s suicide. And the quiet little cottage where she did it.  And how nothing could ever be the same after.

And I thought of my own mother, and her dissociative personality, living in self-imposed “exile”, in squalor, in a woman’s hotel in midtown Manhattan: living in a perpetually darkened room kept that way by blackout curtains and grime encrusted windows and everything that entered that room stayed there for eight years.  And what it was like to sift through all that stuff looking for legal documents.  “Was she lucid?” Someone asked me at her memorial.  And all I could think of saying was “ one was more lucid than she was.” But what did that mean?  If you believed in Blake’s visions of devils and demons and burning trees.... that was the kind of lucidity she lived with, and she wrote it down for someone, me, to find.  O.

There are so many questions than cannot be answered. Like when Dougherty’s daughter crawls onto his lap and asks him, as in the poem Tamir Rice, “Why did the police shoot that boy?/He was only playing.” The poet does not answer, How could he? None of this makes sense, but there it is, the world we live in. He does not say, “God laughs when we make plans for the future.”  He prefers silence. We can’t go on, we go on. Going on is what we do.

A lesser poem would not even attempt a poem like “Grief” which I will quote in full,


I nodded into the wet dog smell of it
heaved it over my back

carried it like a man
who bears a wooden cross,

he will nail himself to-

O Man O Man

There is consolation and love in grief: we must take what we can of it where we find it when we can as the conclusion to “Youngstown Monologue : Captured Light Stained Glass” shows, a poem that moved me to tears, and not for the first time in this collection, nor would it be the last,

“& the room fills
with the light of stories
of those other children
you loved far from me
that stream through stained
glass window when I wheel you
to the cathedral on Sunday
to hear another kind of music,
we hear inside our chests,
and each evening when I lift
you out of your wheelchair
and you press against me
I know to live inside this fragile skin
is to be the light captured by stained glass”

Still, The Second O in Sorrow, cannot be defined by one subject or variations on themes of pain, but branches out into other directions readers of Dougherty’s considerable body of work will recognize. There is a long poem of regret and love in the relationship of a man with his son and the spaces between them that are larger than a generation.  There is Sean at a karaoke night in a bar where a black woman takes the place apart with a song and puts it back together as a much finer place than it was previously, a place where magic can happen, even in the least promising environment.  He defines poetry in a unique way that is both intimate and informative, visceral and real, in “In the Absence of Others I Wanted to Say Something Brave”. He ducks out of a writer’s conference to see what is really happening in town outside of the academic bubble.  In fact, the first time I saw Sean perform his work, we were both ducking out of an AWP conference to attend a reading of local poets in a coffee shop. And if you haven’t seen Sean perform, you should.  Ultimately, Sean is a working man, one with an impressive list of academic achievements, who prefers being with people who have jobs instead of careers.  His work never abandons his roots and his work never fails to remain rich and clean and honest no matter what the subject. What more could you possibly want from a writer?