Only Some of the Saints: A Review of Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Not All Saints
Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Not All Saints, his thirteenth full-length collection, reminds us, again, how much Dougherty is an anthropological poet: he studies people closely, and he shares with us his discoveries. However, don’t expect any answers from his poems as to why people do what they do. Instead, you’ll encounter Hopper-like meditations on the characters that populate our communities. I say Hopper-like because Dougherty isolates people and stills them in their moments of ambiguity, and then he lights them with the moodiest of gels, as in the titular poem, “Not All Saints” when he writes:
At the corner bodega,
in the blue light of the television,
long after midnight,
this small woman
in a black hoodie, carefully
counted out dozens of dimes
from a tiny yellow plastic purse.
And of these many human forms that populate Dougherty’s poems, it becomes abundantly clear that Dougherty is a poet in the vein of Frank O’Hara, which is to say, a poet in love with people, or so his poems intimate. There is a tenderness to the portraits that flash by throughout Not All Saints, but the portraits are not those for whom portraits are usually rendered. Instead, we meet a host of regular folks, like our woman in the bodega. Indeed, Dougherty’s poems interest themselves with lives on the fringes, with outsiders, drug addicts, mill workers, and the rest of the undersung. As such, Dougherty’s poems are for those of us who may know, intimately, of the many flaws that are foundational to the concept of being human in that way we mean when we say, “we’re only human.”
To be fair, the “I” in the poems, presumably Dougherty, is not acting as an anthropologist of a community he does not belong to. The “I” in these poems is a member of the tribe, and, therefore, has the authority to bring us the stories that he does, as in “What Long Ellipsis” when he writes “It’s not that I am lost but that I carry the ones I’ve lost inside me so much I forget exactly who I am….” and then the poem goes on to situate the speaker in intimate relation to those lost via scenes suspended in their climactic moments.
With regards to this concept of climactic moments, and if Dougherty’s poems reflect a kind of Hopper-like sensibility, they can also move in ways that are cinematic. I am made to recall the plastic bag scene from American Beauty, the enigmatic symbolism of it, and how it seemed to hold all the secrets to peacefully accepting life as it plays out. Likewise, the poems in Not All Saints offer us these flashes of movement, these startling moments of metaphor in action, like in “Sepia Postcard Near Atlantic City Circa 1987” when he conjures “…railroad tracks/littered with needles/the miraculous//goats//stepping/with their long icicle beards//like the three wise men//heading toward the station//of the cross.”
As a human myself who is swayed by the pathos of our follies, I particularly appreciate the way Dougherty risks sentiment in his poems time and time again without layering on the schmaltz. He is not afraid of high emotion, of the swoon that comes when one is so profanely in love with living. Indeed, he happily uses the word “love” many times in the collection, but it does not seem detrimental to the poetry, and this is because the sentiment is paired so well with metaphors meant to illustrate it, as in “The Men and The Quiet” when a crying shirt, separated from its wearer, becomes a symbol for grief or in the poem that opens the collection when he offers “Let me tell you a story is another way to ask you to let me tell you how to love me, to say why at night I curl into the shape of a question mark.” Which is a perfect way to open this collection of poems, because it is one that asks you to look, and asks you to ask, but can’t provide easy answers to why we are the way we are. And that’s because there aren’t any easy answers.