Gently Moving with Ghosts: Sean Thomas Dougherty's Scything Grace, by Kristen Orser

At the aquarium, the “moms” look at a shark’s egg sac. One mom says, “Look, a mermaid’s purse,” and I respond, “I thought it was called a devil’s purse?” The moms look at me like I’m the farthest point. There is an overriding sense of isolation; I’ve failed to act like a mom. 

I look at my son and he looks up at me like I’ve done something hilarious. 

The fact is, I’d expected blue. I held the expectation quietly, but held it and felt short of breath. When he was born, with pink skin, I was still holding my breath. And I’ve become preoccupied with the ebb and flow of what happens and what could have happened. 

Both what could have been and what actually is imprint Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Scything Grace with a landscape patterned by imagined, fleeting, and elusive particularities. Arguably, what could have been and what actually is are not distinguished in the text, but are happening at the same time.

       And / this is the point in the poem it would be beautiful to say the ball fell / in,        fell in at the moment of his worst despair—that ball not emptying / his pocket        so much he didn’t have gas to drive home, but it didn’t / drop. Because that’s          how it goes: things don’t fall when they should and / break apart when they            shouldn’t and don’t come back together again. 

The book has many of these points where the work assembles and reassembles potential outcomes in light of matter-of-fact outcomes. This happens so much that conditional, “other worlds” trace their own reality and those other worlds spin equally in the text, creating a plurality that is at once hopeful and full of the most complete despair. 

Dougherty uses syntax to show how “possible presents” and the present-moment-that-is-happening have grown apart. With language, he shapes an enduring product, a possible moment where there was so much beauty, so much connection, and no despair. Even when he refutes that world, recognizes the real world, the syntax keeps gathering and wondering about what could have been. But it only happens in language. Dougherty forces us to remember that language is language. We, as readers, have to recognize that this plurality is only constructed with words. The words are haunting because they can talk to and resurrect ghosts. 

The work is about ghosts. 

Herein rests the complication: Everything that’s not here, everything that didn’t become absolute, is still heavily present. “Even a pronoun. To say the pronoun she is to take a step / towards apprehension. She was almost here” (58). By writing it, she is—of course—here. By writing it, there is an unlimited presence of everything that’s ever been lost. The total world is the work of the poems, is a way of seeing shaped by both what is here and what could be here. The sign, the pronoun, is not a failure to articulate the referent, but is—with ghosts—the only way to enliven and create. Language starts to function like a tool, a tool that can talk to the dead, the unfinished, and all the things that could have been.

The book holds up, to its reader, a series of unfolding conditionals and prepositions that examine indications instead of certainties. Specifically, Dougherty narrates the way everything “scythed” clings. He gives us a book about the plurality of things. We are in a narrative that is released from being absolute. Things stop: the “she” is almost here and the ball didn’t fall where it should have. The stops keep happening and a space opens up where we feel in place, somehow sitting in an absence. This is where we rest in poems that pile conjunction after conjunction and hit us with tragedies. We rest in the way everything stops, all at once, in order to keep itself in motion. 

It’s not simple. It’s as complicated as a sentence like, “the sun was absently everywhere.” There is a process at work here: A process where vanishing points, places beyond the pines, and nightfalls enable us to follow fleeting insights; fleeting possibilities; and everything that didn’t come to full term, but still shines a gleam of light: “To say it as if in / parentheses. Can you hear the aside, out of respect I cannot be direct, / as the elusive is witness.”

Dougherty is invoking the Latin ab “away” and esse “to be;” there isn’t a clear “away” just a removal or distancing. His work doesn’t purify, refine, or polish, but sees that which could be subtracted and makes us tremble with the ghosts. With the work, “we [understand] the history / of losing things” and we are confronted with “a smudge / of memory” that is sometimes as particular as a lost child, sometimes as encompassing as the feeling of “unstitch[ing] the binding...[a]s if there / is another book we endure.” We are with shadows, ghosts, and a slow succession of “almosts.” Dougherty’s work moves between one moment and another moment with full admittance—even invitation—to the ghosts and ambiguities of the moments he’s left behind. It’s not a revision that forgets or leaves out, but a work that shows the labor to be honest and admit to the slowness of talking to ghosts. 

The work, the writer, is concerned with the way things are never fixed and the problem that causes for language. We see Dougherty admit, “I couldn’t find the language for what I was feeling" and the narrative breaks apart; “[s]o you begin again, begin / in the present tense.” The narrative is not what’s driving the work. The narrative is too fragile, isn’t easily told. The text, the way the text is written, holds it together. The text is like a body cradling a vulnerable and tattered story. It’s hard, it comes with a complicated survivor’s guilt: From Buffalo myself, the same region Dougherty is discussing, I left the lakes, the steel towns, the dirt and grime. I remember working the jobs mentioned in this collection and I remember driving down the same roads—seeing the rows and rows of corn, the shimmer of the Niagara grape or Catawbaw, and then seeing the rust, stained hands, smell of rotten fruit. I got out. And I have my son, he is looking at me while I reread the way Dougherty talks to ghosts. He gives all the possibilities at once: I could have stayed in Buffalo, there could have been loss; and re-representing reality to include all the stories inside the present moment is important work. 

The poems are a method of coming to terms with the way conditions shift and language tries to keep up, tries to “go on if no one died. As if this isn’t the whole story. As if / the essay of our life is not also the notes illegible in the margins.”. Dougherty comes to language and tries to find how to locate where language can say something true: 

       The story goes to what geography? What map? Is there a way except 
       under the river, the tunnel someone else had dug? 

And the language doesn’t tell it right. Dougherty writes, “And what if you are the / stranger? Then please, I must offer you this chair.” Here, he begins with a conjunction, not because he is joining anything particular, but because he is idiomatically suggesting that the work of combining is difficult—is filled with the work of divergence, loss, and holes. But he can’t say it unless we are seeing how language isn’t cooperating, how he is methodically teasing out what language cannot chart.

There are implied “ifs” and continuous “woulds” that elicit imaginary situations, ghosts that blow on the book. And this is telling: a conditional is meant to explain something, to give reason, but we’re warned,  “Do not assume there is a / light-switch.” Worse, if there had been a light switch, she could have “learned to grasp the light that hums and borrows.” Dougherty is trying to preserve everything that could slip away from our thoughts, everything that could fall outside of narrative and outside of time. The poems happen on the periphery of what is and what could have been. Dougherty doesn’t give us everything because he admits to impossibilities, to things that are completely lost. Instead, Dougherty gets closer to the significance of seeing the constellation of meaning, the new connections writing engenders, and the importance of including what could have been with the same authenticity as what is.

Kristen Orser

Kristen Orser is the author of With Lorraine All Day (Artistically Declined Press); Winter, Another Wall (blossombones); Folded Into Your Midwestern Thunderstorm (Greying Ghost Press); Wilted Things (Scantily Clad Press); Squint (Dancing Girl Press); and E AT I, illustrated by James Thomas Stevens (Wyrd Tree Press). She is certain about being uncertain and she might forget to return your phone calls.