Death Prefers the Minor Keys
Sean Thomas Dougherty
BOA Editions Ltd.

Reviewer: Shawn Pavey

What Sean Thomas Dougherty accomplishes with this sizable collection of prose poems is miraculous, a word not to be used lightly. I stand by it because these poems, with their unflinching openness and lyrical musicality, are powerful and vibrant and innovative.

Prose poems run a great risk of being poetically uninteresting. Charles Simic, in his famous “Essay on the Prose Poem,” stated that “Prose poetry has been around for almost two centuries and still no one has managed to explain properly what it is.” By it’s very moniker, “prose poetry” shouldn’t exist, but here it is. Dougherty’s poems are poems, indisputably. They resonate with poetics – slant rhyme, assonance and consonance, and rhythm. This is not verse, of course, there is no set meter. But in these poems, Dougherty employs syncopation, runs of dactyls and anapests separated by spondees, trochees, and iambs. These are not flash fiction or personal essay or memoir. This application of sentence fragments, slices of image, the attention paid to the sonic timber in each word, and the way the song of these poems transcends the box of printed prose render enjambment unnecessary. The reader does not need to be led by a line break to know that these are, indeed, striking poems.

Death Prefers the Minor Keys is not a difficult read, but neither is it a fast one. Open this book to any page and the reader is engaged, but this book needs to be read sequentially. Save the skipping around for a subsequent read. Dougherty, in these first few poems, gives us the road map. In his first poem, “Death Letter #2,” he begins:

I’m not sure where I left it. In the fruit aisle beside the avocadoes and the kiwis. On the ledge of a quarry bank three decades ago. I lost my life when she left goes every country song. When my dog died. When my beer ran out. This life, as if tied to a string. The tradition says it is not the maker but the marionettes who control the strings. But if you listen you can hear the maker simply touches them now and then, the way a mallet in a piano will touch a piano string and make a note, a vibration sostenuto that shudders the body. My wife points out, but if it is us who hold the strings of our fate, what if we pull them too hard, what if we snap them and lose our connection?

Notice the thematic leaps from line to line. Dougherty begins each sentence or fragment in one place and takes us to another. From that new place, he launches, tangentially, to a new idea: strings to which a life is tied takes us to marionettes, to music, to vibrations, to connections and their possible loss. In eleven sentences, he moves from misplacing something to wondering if pulling on our connections to the other people in our relationships can strain or even snap that connection.

This entire work is spent exploring those strings: threads of connection from poem to poem as Dougherty weaves each poem into the larger tapestry of this book. Dougherty drifts from the now of his life both at home and at work, but also to the then of his heritage and those roots to their Eastern European origin, imagining the stories behind black and white photos.

These poems chronicle the internal workings of the narrator’s mind in a life too full of grief and not nearly enough joy. But joy is here and he does show it at the most astonishing times. In the final lines of Fugue Written on Unpaid Medical Bills and the Backs of Old Menus, a poem in four parts, he writes:

A Handful of Paper Cranes Made of Rolling Papers

The one you love nodding out on a beat-up chair. The one you love drunk in a white t-shirt. The little dance you both did when you drank too much, the radio playing songs from 1964. Johnny Cash singing, Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir. When we danced you did that move like a stoned Mick Jagger, the slow rising of your front leg like a great blue heron. You shook all your tail feathers. You and I are such a small hosanna. A few threads unraveled from the seam.

This is a memory of a younger, possibly better time, but despite the current realities of the spouse’s severe illness, there is a reverent ecstasy in remembering You and I are such a small hosanna.

This book is full of moments like this. Another example: in the middle of an explanation about an episode of The Golden Girls (“Eulogy at My Own Wake after The Golden Girls”), Sofia asks the girls to plan a faux wake so that she can hear the nice things people would say about her.

… And if I was at my own wake, I’d offer up my own soliloquy of all the things I’ve failed. Failed to be patient with the rain, failed to tend the garden in late summer, failed to listen to my daughter when she was trying to tell me of some teenage pain. Failed to say it is ok. Failed to learn the names of those tiny white butterflies, or different kinds of bees, or the names of my father’s lures. Failed to make time if time can be made. Failed to put the dishes away. Failed to forget my grievances or remember the anniversaries of the small hours. Failed to make them linger. Failed to blow on my soup. Failed to share my burns. Failed to re-piece the shards. Failed to count the fireflies. Failed to notice the day the forsythia bloomed. Failed to listen. Failed to sing. Failed to say how people in my life shimmered. Like the lake in late summer. I failed to drown. And for no reason I can name I think of my son when he was three and after it rained he’d go for walks with me and his mother, stomping in every puddle we passed, he in his big yellow oversized boots.

As much as the closing poem in this collection, “Whatever Happened to David Caruso,” deserves close attention and praise, discussing it at length here would spoil the first reading. Suffice it to say that Dougherty closes this book as he begins: with a simple premise that he follows down through the tangents of internal thought to end in a moment of transcendent, heartbreaking revelation.