by David Nilsen
Sean Thomas Dougherty’s poetry collection The Second O of Sorrow (BOA Editions, 2018) is an intimate portrait of the poet’s erstwhile Ohio home, but the lens of these poems is not focused on our bucolic fields or the rejuvenating hipster neighborhoods in our cities. It is focused on what is overlooked and forgotten in this rust belt state, the towns and jobs and cultures and—more than anything—the individual human lives passed over by progress and left to scrape a living from the state’s crumbling industrial centers and decaying rural towns. The Ohio of The Second O of Sorrow is Ohio as afterthought, the Ohio that dwells in the rest of the state’s peripheral vision. Because of that, Ohio itself is rarely the focus here. Dougherty focuses on individuals and places forgotten, and in so doing, shows us Ohio’s ache and need. This is Ohio writ small, at least in the eyes of the big.
In the book’s title poem, Dougherty gives us Ohio only as a backdrop to his family’s story, its long, cracked country highways carrying his father away and bringing him home again:
Somehow, I am still here, long after
transistor radios, the eight-tracks my father blared
driving from town to town across Ohio
selling things, the music where we danced
just to keep alive.
Later in the poem, he gives us the filthy beauty of rotting Great Lakes industries under a chill, grey sky:
I breathe the dirty East Side wind
pushing past the Russian church, the scent
of fish & freighters & the refinery
filling the hole in my chest
The pumping, pulsing heart of the collection is “Biography of LeBron as Ohio,” a three-page poem in which the titular basketball star stands in for his Midwestern home state. Proud, talented, struggling, and surviving, Dougherty poses this former Akron boy and current Cleveland player as dozens of figures and facets of the state. Black women at the Baptist church. Freighters stuck in ice. Rubber plant workers. Migrant farm workers. Every kind of worker. Gods.
They said he was arrogant. I said he was just Ohio…
…Old Scratch is flipping the pages
Of his program & waiting high in the stands—to belong to a
place most people would call
nowhere, to show the world how tough we truly are,
twelve-hour shifts at the Rubber plant in Akron. How he is, how
he is a part of this asphalt court we call Ohio, & how we
suffer, & how we shine.
Traced throughout The Second O of Sorrow are Dougherty’s devastating reflections on his wife’s illness. Alternating between beautiful odes to love and grim observations on what it means to be fighting for life in this country, these poems are their own sort of metaphor for the Rust Belt. Lives struggle onward outside the spotlight, abiding in the midst of pain and joy, largely unnoticed by the lofty. These poems drive the book, but they intentionally do not form its loudest voice. Instead, Dougherty writes quietly in “My Grief Grows a White Flower” of a tree his wife’s father planted before she was born, and how “now like you it bends / in the coming storm.” In “After Surgery” he speaks of “lists of appointments like citations,” how medical care can be made to feel like a guilty want instead of a vital need. To be sick and low-income is to be guilty.
In the midst of his grief and anxiety, Dougherty puts forward expressions of startling beauty, as in these lines from “Youngstown Monologue: Captured Light Stained Glass”:
I know to live in this fragile skin
is to be the light captured by stained glass.
The Second O of Sorrow intersperses verse poems with prose and employs differing lengths and formats as though looking for a key to fit the lock that will make this life easier. Often enough, poems end in a double dash, as though abandoned in the middle of reverie because there is work to be done.
Work and pool hall laughter, love and the horror of death and loss. Dougherty lays it all out in this collection, and he does so on the tarnished and diveted table of Ohio. As he writes in “Toledo, Ohio 1977,” this life is at least as beautiful as it is broken: “Davey’s father’s thick arms mapped with scars from the glass factory. Each of his six children wore those scars. And we were all the shards of shiny things, black pieces of coal pressed to diamonds in the pale Ohio light.”