John Dorsey Tells Us of Pretty Girls
By Shawn Pavey
Book Review: The Prettiest Girl at the Dance by John Dorsey
Blue Horse Press, ISBN-10 : 0578818787, ISBN-13 : 978-0578818788
Reviewing John Dorsey’s work is never an easy task. The greatest challenge comes in finding new things to say about his consistently exceptional poems that, over the last decade or so, come with more frequency and ferocity. Dorsey is a prolific poet. His previous collection to this one, Which Way to the River? by OAC Books weighed in at just under 500 pages and only collected four years of work. Yet Dorsey still manages to create, in each poem, a fresh revelation about being human in a world moving so fast that people spin off to collect in convenience store parking lots, truck stop diners, and low rent tenements. These are John Dorsey’s people.
The subject of each of the poems in this collection are women he’s met – waitresses, lovers, passing acquaintances, and dear friends. I know this because I know John. I’ve witnessed the events in at least one of these poems, met some of the characters from others. To be considered a friend of John’s is an honor and one I don’t take lightly. But as a reviewer, I must set that friendship aside to speak honestly about this book. That, in this case, is the easy part.
The Prettiest Girl at the Dance is some of Dorsey’s best work to date. Victor Clevenger’s insightful foreword to this book makes the same assertion. It is a bold thing for either of us to say, but Dorsey’s legion of readers will most likely agree.
Let’s look at The Prettiest Girl in Austin, Texas:
claims to have the best ass
in the city
a perfect apple shape
for roaming hipster bars
this town used to be so cool
now she has to drink malt liquor
out of an empty bag
in an empty field
just to stay ahead
of the curve
As I wrote in the foreword to Dorsey’s 2019 collection, Your Daughter’s Country (also from Blue Horse Press) if one finds one’s self the subject of a John Dorsey poem, he loves you. But it doesn’t mean one is free from a little good-natured teasing. The subject of the poem above laments how “cool” only lasts long enough to be recognized. Once “cool” is overrun by “common,” we are, quite literally, sent to new pastures to find the thing we lost once everybody else found out about it.
Readers new to Dorsey’s work and longtime fans will delight in how much weight each of these poems carry in so few lines. There are only two poems in this collection that run longer than a page and none longer than a page and a half. Dorsey makes his verbs do the heavy lifting. His modifiers are sparse and absolutely necessary to paint his images. His use of imagery is damned near alchemical as he creates tiny little worlds where the reader and the subject interact. In The Prettiest Girl in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Dorsey writes:
had red hair & kind eyes
& wore a backless sundress
in the middle of february
she had a mind as big
as the milky way
& freckles all over her body
that kept me from writing
It is in the small details where we see Dorsey paint vast canvases with a fine-tipped brush: sundresses, freckles, red hair – these are the words that create the thumbnail sketch that he fleshes out throughout this brief poem. Freckles become the Milky Way, all of the details combine to create a person that affects the poet so deeply that he cannot do the thing that defines him.
Another distinctive characteristic in these poems is that many contain a structural hinge, much like a traditional sonnet. While Dorsey rarely writes structured verse, he’s studied it plenty. Take The Prettiest Girl in Fisherman’s Wharf, for example:
places her hand on my shoulder
to keep my absent-minded legs
from stepping in front
of an oncoming streetcar
her fingers long and cool
like the summer breeze
remind me that I don’t die yet
want to die alone
or take the form
of a dying bird
i want to love her
just long enough
for a beer to get warm
just long enough
to mean it
In a mere 15 lines, Dorsey takes us from mindlessly walking down the street to recognizing an act of kindness to contemplating his own mortality to falling in love “just long enough / to mean it.” The hinge happens in the line space before the next to last stanza. The three lines prior take us out of the moment and into the poet’s contemplative spinning out to his eventual end and back again. But he changes direction in those last five lines. What can the poet offer in thanks? Love, adoration, if only for the briefest time.
One could argue that in the title of this book and in the title of each poem, using the diminutive “girls” does a disservice to the subjects of these poems. That is a valid point, on the surface. After reading these poems, however, it becomes evident that Dorsey’s use of the term “girl” is intentional to portray a sense of the innocence of beauty, kindness, and feminine vulnerability and strength.
Dorsey’s view of these characters is also unflinching. In The Prettiest Girl in Kansas City, Missouri, Dorsey concludes:
working as a museum security guard
where she stole loose bills
from the donation box
to buy enough whiskey
to put in the baby’s bottle
to help her make it
through the night.
This is an unflattering observation of somebody struggling to make it through the world the best she can with the tools available. Not all of Dorsey’s pretty girls are life-saving angels, their beauty might be hard for many of us to see. But John Dorsey sees beauty in everyone and that beauty permeates every single one of his poems.
The Prettiest Girl at the Dance is Dorsey at his best – telling entire stories with a handful of lines that are at once both intimate and universal. It is a quick read, but by no means light.
Shawn Pavey, February 12th, 2021
About the Author: Shawn Pavey is the author of Talking to Shadows (Main Street Rag Press, 2008), Nobody Steals the Towels From a Motel 6 (Spartan Press, 2015), and Survival Tips for the Pending Apocalypse (2019, Spartan Press) which was 1st runner up for the 2020 Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award. He co-founded The Main Street Rag Literary Journal and served as an Associate Editor. His infrequently updated blog is at www.shawnpavey.com.