“A Review of John Dorsey’s Your Daughter’s Country” By Chase Dimock

 

Your Daughter’s Country by John Dorsey

Reviewed by Chase Dimock

 

Reading Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press) is like leafing through an old family photo album. But, instead of your good-natured grandma narrating while tactfully dancing around family secrets and perfuming the pictures of cousins nobody talks about anymore with a folksy “it takes all kinds,” your guide is Uncle John, who tells you everything. Schlitz in hand, he tells you of aunts with “cracked skin” who could “eat $20 worth of burger king”, abusive great-grandfathers, uncles who never left their “mother’s side,” and cousins bathing in a steel drum.

You wonder if it’s appropriate to hear all this, but you can see the fondness, empathy, and pain in Uncle John’s eyes, and you realize this isn’t gossip or the settling of old scores. It’s love for the wear and tear we see in people content with their scars or nursing their bruises, and an almost ethical duty to present people as they are: neither sensationalized nor sanitized.

Dorsey’s first two poems “Poem for Olin Marshall” and “A History of Bite Marks” might best express this style of empathy through truth.

all my grandmother’s cousin ever wanted
was his own pizza & a used lawn tractor
the son of sharecroppers & war heroes
he drove a school bus & raised wild dogs
that bit the hand that fed them

We see Olin’s life as a series of loss: he talks of his dead sister “as if she were a saint,” his wife who passed the same year (“he had never seen a ghost quite as lovely”) and the death of his brother, whose estate he inherited, but simply let sit in a bank, resigned to “gathering his history up like dead leaves.” It’s this understanding of Olin’s melancholia that perhaps explains why in “A History of Bite Marks,” Dorsey does not complain too loudly about washing Olin’s dog Bruno as “he tried to take chunks out of our ankles.” Loving others means being bitten, and finding meaning in the language of bite marks.

When applied to his family, Dorsey’s trademark empathy for the underappreciated tells us more about his own identity. In “Tommy” he remembers a great uncle born with cerebral palsy like himself:

one of the sweetest men
i’ve ever known
he was a large baby
big enough to swallow
whole japanese tourists
in some infant godzilla scenario

Several poems remember his grandfather, who bears the decline of the Rustbelt on his shoulders. In “His Summer Place” he laments his grandfather losing an inherited family property after the failure of his painting business. “We Were Still Brave Then” depicts Dorsey as a child and his naive but charitable reaction to his Grandfather’s unemployment, gifting eight dollars to help the family. In a way, we’re reading the John Dorsey origin story, a look into how he inherited and developed his human insight and empathy as a poet.


The collection’s eponymous poem “Your Daughter’s Country” is Dorsey at his most revealing and unsettling, tracing the lineage of generational trauma. It begins with a fairly standard description of his great-grandfather’s depression era farm life, but then suddenly he exposes what the family long repressed:

the family history gets a little fuzzy

it wasn’t until i was in my 20’s
that i found out he had also been
an alcoholic
a railroad man
& a rapist

something my own father never knew

The rest of the poem delves into the tragic, abused life of his grandmother, for whom “there was never anywhere for her to go that was far enough away from where she’d been.” This is Dorsey’s greatest twist. He populates the book with several endearing, or at least sympathetic portraits of family, until you come to the poem that bears the book’s name, and he rips apart our expectations, like the way his great-grandfather’s abuse likely tore through generations of family.

While the poems about his literal family stand out, for John Dorsey, the familial extends beyond blood kin. Throughout his career, Dorsey’s work has been known for his portraits of people often overlooked or misunderstood. Whether it’s an old friend or a weathered stranger’s face at a rural Missouri diner, he has the ability to pull something from deep inside a person that feels as if it came from the memories of a cousin you spent all your summers swimming with.

In “Poem for Mary Anthony” Dorsey portrays a trucker who knows “you won’t find god in the stacks of books we have piled high in the bookstore in town.” In another poem, he mentions a friend’s brief recollection of a man who placed second in an episode of Star Search, but

just like in life
nobody ever remembers
the runner up.

instead they ask you
for your last cigarette

I’d argue that Dorsey’s poetry is all about remembering the runner up, as well as the last place finishers, those who didn’t get an audition, and all those who never got to dream of an opportunity.

 

Your Daughter’s Country is available from Blue Horse Press.

 

About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College LiteratureWestern American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday MagazineThe Lambda Literary ReviewModern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, San Pedro River Review, and Trailer Park Quarterly. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More by Chase Dimock: 

Letting the Meat Rest: A Conversation With Poet John Dorsey 

Leadwood: A Conversation With Poet Daniel Crocker

First-Hand Accounts From Made-Up Places: An Interview With Poet Mike James

Letting the Meat Rest: A Conversation With Poet John Dorsey

Letting the Meat Rest:

A Conversation With Poet John Dorsey

By Chase Dimock

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If you pick up a copy of Letting the Meat Rest, hoping to find tips for juicy pork chops, luckily, John Dorsey’s got you covered:

a pork chop sizzles in a pan
for six minutes tops
any longer & you’ll let the imagination
bleed out all over your plate
& escape into the woods
like magic.

Yet, Dorsey’s subject matter extends beyond pork products. Reading Letting the Meat Rest is like rummaging through a friend’s box of old Polaroids. You want to learn more about these people and moments captured in time. Some snapshots are brief, impressionistic prints of a person frozen in a sliver of life, while others have their detailed history scrawled on the back. These vignettes present us with visions of addiction, poverty, and trauma, but also optimistic moments of youthful ambition, rebellion, and intimate friendship. No matter what Dorsey depicts, whether it’s a full portrait or a quick sketch, it’s always crafted with deep humanity

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Chase Dimock: I first became acquainted with your work when a mutual friend of ours told me he was driving up to Central Missouri to pick up the Poet Laureate of Belle, MO. At that moment I learned a few things: 1. That a town named Belle, MO exists 2. That a town of less than 2,000 people in rural Missouri has a Poet Laureate, and 3. That the Poet Laureate of Belle, MO is John Dorsey. Having lived for a few years in Cape Girardeau myself, I know there are quite a few cultural gems to be found in rural Missouri. How did you become the Poet Laureate of Belle, MO and what has that experience been like? I saw one poem in Letting the Meat Rest depicting the appropriately named Dinner Belle restaurant in town, so I am curious to know how this experience in Belle has impacted your writing.

John Dorsey: Well, to make a short story long, Chase,  I ended up in Belle at the end of 2015, from Wisconsin, after being awarded a residency at the Osage Arts Community and through that connection, in particular with the Executive Director Mark McClane, I started to meet more people in town,  including Mayor Steve Vogt, who seeing all of the work I had done and was continuing to do, offered me the appointment as Poet Laureate, I’m actually the first Poet Laureate the town of Belle has ever had. Since my appointment we’ve opened a Non-Profit used bookstore, Barb’s Books, and I founded, and Co-Edit, with Jason Ryberg, a literary journal, the Gasconade Review, which received grant funding through the Friends of the Belle Library, from Kingsford/Clorox. As far as the impact on my work, the first full book I finished here was Being the Fire, which was 80 new poems, written in my first two months here, and published by Tangerine Press in London in Fall of 2016. Since I’ve been here I’d say I’ve written between 300-400 poems, which have gone into 6 or 7 different books or chapbooks and have written a full length feature film, Missouri Loves Company, which was produced by Paladin Knight Pictures out of New Jersey, on a budget of around $60,000, which was shot on the East Coast and here in town, and is currently being edited. In terms of my poetry, I’d say that at least half of everything since I’ve been here has to do with Belle itself, so the impact has been significant. Continue reading “Letting the Meat Rest: A Conversation With Poet John Dorsey”