Chase Dimock: A Review of All Seats Fifty Cents, by Stephen Roger Powers

 

Although Stephen Roger Powers’ latest book All Seats Fifty Cents contains some poems that aren’t about Dolly Parton, once she enters your mind, she commands your imagination like the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. So, it’s impossible to begin this review in any other way but to marvel over Powers’ many Dolly meditations. And, it’s a good place to start because the Dolly Parton poems are a microcosm of Powers’ overall vision of the inalienable relationship between popular culture and personal identity in the American 20th and 21st centuries.

The story of Dolly Parton’s evolution as a pop icon is simultaneously Powers’ own coming of age narrative illuminated by the televised glow of Dolly’s radiant blonde. In a section titled “Burst My Bubbles,” Powers recalls the moment Dolly captured his adolescent fantasy:

I credit Dolly Parton in a bubble bath
for popping my Catholic cornfield bubble
I was hating my Sunday altar boy costume
and sore knees from all that kneeling

Like for so many other young people in the 70s and 80s, Dolly Parton’s television appearances in conservative households snuck in a vision of an alternative to the American culture of repression and limited ambition. For Powers, this is an erotic, but not objectifying awakening:

Sunday night, the 27th of September, 1987-
lather, bare shoulders, and a great big smile

Parton speaks directly to Powers from a bathtub, alluding to the promise of a world of something more glamorous and desirable than the duties of the Catholic altar boy.

While it’s doubtless that millions of adolescent boys had certain new stirrings when first seeing Dolly’s farm girl charm, luxurious appeal, and ample bosom, for Powers, this is not a story about a typical pin up object of desire. Rather, his fixation on Dolly is about how her transcendent talent and creative vision offer a lifestyle that breaks through gender and class barriers in ways few celebrities allowed in the conservative world could. In “Step It Up a Little,” Powers testifies to the appeal of Dolly’s agency, “Every man should learn to walk in stilettos as high as Dolly Parton’s.” It is refreshing to hear a straight man praise a female artist as something he aspires to be like. Dolly is a gay icon like Judy, Liza, Cher, Diana, Joan and Bette, all strong women who forged the steel of femininity. Yet, the appeal is universal, and what gay men got out of modeling themselves after these women is what straight men have long needed and have recently become more comfortable in expressing. That’s the power of Dolly Parton; she radiates universal qualities we all admire, and yet we all feel as though we have uniquely intimate relationships with her art.

 

 

Powers’ Dolly poems understand how we craft our identities through the complexities of the celebrity/fan relationship. There have been plenty of odes to heroes in the history of poetry, but not as many about the nuances of 21st century fan culture. Beyond the scope of Dolly as an idol to worship, Powers’ poems also explore how she is a lifestyle to live and a commodity to purchase. Dolly is not just a singer and celebrity; she’s also a businesswoman with her own themepark, Dollywood, where the fan can live in a world of her own design.  In “Dolly Floats,” first published here on As It Ought To Be Magazine, Powers writes a year by year chronicle of Dolly’s appearances in parades at the Dollywood theme park, accompanied by annotations about his personal life:

2015

Dreams come true when Dolly, garnished in red
with gold trim, jack-in-the-boxed from cake,
her great big yellow wig a flaming candle.

With the majestic vision of Dolly, always as much fantasy as she is human, Powers own humanity and flesh, as prone to weakness as all us other mortals, comes between him and Dolly:

2017

Antibiotics pinholed my right hip.
“If I take it easy do you think I could
go to Pigeon Forge on Friday
for Dolly’s annual parade?”
“No.”
Steroids picked my left hip.
“But you don’t understand–”
“Absolutely not.”

Powers most powerfully juxtaposes the goddess with the mere mortal in his poem “Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story.” Here, he recounts a brief encounter with Dolly in her Dollywood dreamland, known as the “sausage story.” He gives us first a mundane version in which he merely sees her walk by, and then this version “unshackled from the truth” that may be fiction, but better expresses the impact of seeing her while eating a sausage.

the greasy peppers and onions slid.
the moment the reigning queen of Nashville
graced all us fans standing around waiting
in the Dollywood devilry she gave us.
She was so sunny and funny
she hollered to her bodyguard to pour
club soda on me before the stain set.

Powers builds a connection with Parton through mythologization. We retell stories until the facts of the story transform into the meaning it holds for the teller. Powers further explores how celebrities do the same, and because their words are recorded, we can actually track this phenomena. He unpacks the story behind Jolene’s evolution from mere fan to vixen along side the multiple retellings and revisions of his sausage story:

Dolly lets her stories take
on a life of their own like this too…

Listen to Dolly tell it now–
Jolene is a fiery-headed hussy
at the bank who tried to steal
her husband one day when he cashed
a royalty check for
“I Will Always Love You.”

A celebrity is always a collaborative mythology created between the woman beneath the wig and the collective imagination of the audience. In these poems, we see Dolly as she is, and as she is imagined. Both of these Dollys are equally real.

I hope Powers will Parton me (get it???) for obsessing over Dolly in my review as much as he does in his poems. This American icon who my grandmother proudly refers to as “your grandfather’s secret girlfriend” cannot ever not be the focus of any media she graces. That said, the balance of Powers poems achieves equally brilliant insights into the relationship between pop culture and individual/family identity through considerations of other televised spectacles. In a poem about Lou Ferrigno’s feet, Powers writes:

My brother and his strawberry Kool Aid mustache
peeked out just in time to see
the hulk’s green slippers–unedited, overlooked,
unraveled illusion impossible to un-see–slap
the concrete, slow motion run away.
The Hulk wears green slippers
It wasn’t long before I learned trust
means different things to children and adults.
Even now I can’t un-see Challenger crumbling
in the sky like a clump of wet sand.

In the past few years, Hollywood seems to have kept itself afloat by repackaging 80s and 90s nostalgia to those who lived through it. Without a critical eye, or more social relevance than giving the heroes smartphones, this nostalgic regurgitation has been more of a security blanket roof over a couch cushion fort than any artistic tribute or reimagination. This is why I appreciate Powers’ pop culture poems so much. While they touch on nostalgia, they avoid the uncritical sentimentality of nostalgia that takes shots of Crystal Pepsi until you can’t hear the news about climate change anymore. Powers’ poems are not an escape from reality; rather, they detail the sad ache of nostalgia and the beauty of somehow knowing, even in one’s golden years, that the tarnish is inevitable and possibly already there. Nostalgia, as Powers engages with it, can be a powerful and informative way to trace the origins of our values and explore how we became who we are.

Everyone in a Dolly Parton concert has sausage stains and arthritic hips. Powers shows that Dolly’s presence doesn’t change this reality, but with her Backwoods Barbie persona, she knows Club Soda is a miracle potion and that the sparkle of her sequins is majestic, and on sale at Joann Fabrics.

 

All Seats Fifty Cents is available via Salmon Poetry

 

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, New Mexico Review, Faultline, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, and San Pedro River Review among othersFor more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More by Chase Dimock: 

A Review of John Dorsey’s Your Daughter’s Country

A Review of Jumping Bridges in Technicolor by Mike James

Leadwood: A Conversation With Poet Daniel Crocker

“The Inner Life of Midwesterners Rarely Spoken: A Review of Marc Frazier’s Willingly” By Chase Dimock

 

 

The Inner Life of Midwesterners Rarely Spoken:

A Review of Marc Frazier’s Willingly

 By Chase Dimock

 

     In the poem “Iterations” Marc Frazier claims “There is no limit to the times a poet can mention the body.” Frazier’s latest book Willingly is true to his own words as nearly every poem is about inhabiting a body or the embodiment of ideas and emotions:

this body that stirs, or fails to
this barely defined shoulder
my body beside someone’s but not yet yours.

Frazier’s bodies are sites of memory, pain, desire, and the hope of transcendence through sensual connection with other bodies. These bodies are both familiar and alienating: his own body ranging from childhood to middle age, the alternately tender or cold bodies of lovers and objects of desire, and the bodies of his family members wracked with mental illness and the ravages of old age. Thus, Willingly is about how bodies are shaped by their environment, nurtured or neglected by family and community, and legible through scars:

Body, exhausted by metaphor–limited, earthbound.
Words can’t capture how it falters, breaks,
how there may be something more.

Words cannot capture a body in the sense that capturing means possessing and immobilizing it the way the possessiveness of desire sometimes wishes we could. But as a poet, Frazier’s words can depict the impressions of the body in motion, the way it ages, cowers in pain, and yearns for the touch of others.

      Frazier begins his collection with the poem “little death; dissociative identity,” which sets the tone for his subsequent explorations of identity and desire. I imagine “little death” as a reference to the French “la petite mort,” a term that refers to the after effects of an orgasm. As the majority of the poems intersperse recollections of his dysfunctional family and meditations on his sexuality from childhood to present, the idea of sex culminating in a small death frames this relationship between his identity as a gay man and his upbringing in the midwest. The pleasures of the body mean that a part of him must die: namely the lingering trauma of a childhood that shamed his queerness as a man and an artist.

      In “Synopsis” Frazier gives us exactly that: a run down of his infancy to manhood: “mother threatens to kill me during the seventh month of my life… mother is admitted for insulin and electro-shock therapies…I have to survive my father a difficult battle to win.” Living with a mentally ill mother and a stern Catholic father adds up: 

I live as a person
divided
the religious youth
and the man
cruising men
my fragile self fueled
by porn alcohol

While an upbringing does not determine one’s sexual orientation, it does heavily inform how one navigates their sexuality and what they want to get through it. By alternating poems about his family from the nostalgic to the traumatic with poems about his loves and lusts, Frazier’s poetry investigates how the wounds of the past drive us to heal through desires of the flesh. 

        All discussions of sexual desire carry the stigma of taboo in our culture, yet Frazier’s poetry is unafraid to be vulnerable and confessional. His work is especially brave because he does not merely reveal erotic desires, but also the pain of rejection, the lingering feelings of inadequacy, and the moral ambiguity of his sexual past. In two back to back poems, “Without Words” and “Sergio”, Frazier connects his difficult relationship with his mother to a failed romantic relationship. Addressing his mother, he writes: “Even now, I stiffen when you hug me,/ frozen in an infant’s body”. Through poetry, he attempts to find healing for his trauma:

Each word I write aims to uncover the damage,
to express trauma that happens before language

But a body remembers what happened.
How I want to surrender, to let you reach me:

My body’s wanting to love is not the same as loving
though wanting to be loved is the same as loving

The problem of wanting to love and be loved in a traumatized body that cannot process or receive love as the mind wants emerges as well in Frazier’s poems about sexuality. In these poems, he explores the dual nature of sex: the sensual and the carnal. I was particularly struck by some of the poems in which he positions the carnal as a reaction to the frustrations and disappointments in trying to make a sensual, romantic connection. In “Without You” he writes:

I bring bodies alive with a quarter
        Watch them laboring
Like pistons and cylinders,
        Without sound

To unlearn the beauty of you
        the pornography does best

When a body he loved slips away, he responds with a carnal possession of another, virtual body he can always control. In “Sergio” this reactionary attitude is echoed as he writes “the more I have sex, the more I get even.” It’s brave to explore this unflattering, yet all too human and universal aspect of frustrated desire. 

      Despite the strong focus on a traumatized past and painfully honest poems about the darker and stickier elements of desire, Frazier’s book still maintains a certain level of optimism in the promise of sensual connection through bodies. In these poems, he crafts some of his most beautiful images and lines. In “Architecture” he writes

I hear each cell crave to be more
my desire to be less
anchored deep in the kiln of your chest

In “Heart Tide” Frazier writes of the hope for transcendence through vulnerability:

My clear heart rests in your hand
                  beyond death’s fingers
                  It holds itself, freed of geography and time.

That line beautifully sums up the aspirations of Frazier’s book. We recover traumas through the body. We feel the pain of shame, rejection, and frustration through the body. But at moments, bodies can intertwine and transcend the damage of the past and the physical constraints of the present. There are indeed no limits to the times a poet can mention the body, and through poetry we reshape and we rethink the bodies we inhabit each time they are mentioned.

 

Willingly is available from Adelaide Books

 

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, New Mexico Review, Faultline, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, and San Pedro River Review among othersFor more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More by Chase Dimock: 

A Review of John Dorsey’s Your Daughter’s Country

A Review of Jumping Bridges in Technicolor by Mike James

Leadwood: A Conversation With Poet Daniel Crocker

 

“When I Was A Girl Like Me: An Interview With Poet Margaret Bazzell-Crocker” By Chase Dimock

 

When I Was A Girl Like Me:

An Interview With Poet Margaret Bazzell-Crocker

By Chase Dimock

When Margaret Bazzell-Crocker told me she would be publishing her first collection of poetry in 20 years, I expected her to be revelation to anyone who picked up her book. As a good friend of hers, I knew readers would be equal parts charmed and provoked by her perspective. Her personality certainly radiates from the pages: funny, empathetic, authentic, unrepentantly unorthodox, and insightful.

What I didn’t expect was for the book to be a revelation to me. When you’ve known someone for a while, you tend to think you’ve got them figured out, even when your base assumption is that they are amazing and capable of anything. I learned a lot about Margaret: about her relationship with anger and disillusionment, how these feelings came from her upbringing and her dissatisfaction with the status of women in the world of her youth, and how the Margaret I met in her 40s is a product of decades of harnessing and channeling this into an energy that can create and nurture.

After finishing the book, I wondered if I had been daft and dense to have missed some of this in my friend. But, what I realized while interviewing Margaret is that it is through the language of poetry that so much of this experience can be expressed and heard. When I Was a Girl Like Me is the annotated guide to the life of Margaret Bazzell-Crocker. The following interview is just as much about wanting to better understand a friend as it is about wanting to share her with the world.

Chase Dimock: Your book contains a short introduction in which you address your anger. You write, “People are afraid of anger and especially women are afraid to be angry” and that you are now “comfortable” with your anger because you can “aim it with laser precision.” Why did you decide to begin by addressing your history of dealing with anger and what role does this anger play in your poetry?

Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: I think I wrote first about anger because it’s the emotion I’ve wrestled with most, and I’ve been fascinated with the idea that it seems to be especially shocking when a woman is angry. I remember feeling the same way when I got old enough for my mother to make me start wearing shirts. Why did I have to go around in shirts? None of the boys or men in our neighborhood did! Our household wasn’t really great when I was growing up and anger seemed to be the go-to feeling for all of us, although we always expressed it in gender-specific ways. The girls were allowed to sulk and the boys were allowed to hit.

I think a big, powerful moment growing up for me was when I discovered I had the power to express my anger in more definite ways, and I’m sad to say that I wasn’t, at first, very responsible with this power. I hit, I threw things, I did things I was sorry for afterwards, and I wouldn’t go through that experience again if I could help it. However, I think the message I got when I was younger, and that women continue to get now, was that a girl or woman could feel things in a corner, but they’d better not sit at the table with it. I’m not completely comfortable sitting at the table today, but I’ll do it, by God. As far as how anger affects my poetry, I think it affects some of it, of course. I hope readers will see that this collection begins with anger, but then talks about all kinds of emotions and situations. The collection gets past my anger, but still acknowledges it as a great source of power. Good and bad.

 

Chase Dimock: Let’s talk about where this anger and your attempt to harness and manage it surface in your poems. A few months ago, we published the second poem in the book, “The Art of Acquiescence,” in As It Ought to Be Magazine. In it you write:

To be a woman
in this world
is to bend and curve and slip around its corners
like a snake in the river.

You explain that a woman must “contort” herself. How do you feel this compulsory contortion and acquiescence feeds into the anger you feel? How does this connect your personal experience with the women of the world who you broadly address in the first two lines?

Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: First of all, I like the words you use about the anger in my poetry, because I think they are correct: “harness,” and, “manage.” That is what I tried so hard to do in the past whenever I felt angry. I would add another that’s in “The Art of Acquiescence” poem itself: “meet.” I did try to harness my anger because it went far into a dangerous field when I found I had the power to wield it, and as I’ve said, I regret that. But, then I found I over-corrected, because I was trying to be accommodating to everyone but me. There is still a tendency now to please everyone around me and be resentful of it. The more I matured and was around different women, the more I found their anger and resentment, even for the people they loved sometimes, matched my own. The more I still found this tendency in many of us, to turn the art of acquiescence into a line, drawn in battle. And the more determined I was to erase, or at least redefine, this line in myself. That’s why I would add the word “meet.” In the poem, the snake meets all obstacles. I love that little snake!

I hope, with this collection of poetry, readers see, not that I am finally at Hallmark Channel peace with my anger, but that I am working to remove the battle from it, to negotiate a peace-accord, maybe with myself. I have come of age, I guess, in my willingness to see it as a part of me, but no longer a defining part of me. I would never advise anyone else to do the same. My poem is my journey, and no one else’s. I wrote it because I feel my journey with anger and with other emotions that stand in the way of growth, change, or even just a happy, still life may resonate with others, too.

Continue reading

“A Review of Mike James’ Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor” By Chase Dimock

 

 

In “My Wife’s Shoes,” the first poem of Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse Press), Mike James writes “some nights we turn the radio to ballroom music and I pretend to be Fred Astaire, led by Ginger Rogers for a change, and dance in high heels in reverse.” “High heels in reverse” is the essence of his book. Astaire and Rogers had to know the geometry of each other’s bodies and steps inside and out to perform their moves. A careful eye can spot the scenes where Rogers is actually leading. This is exactly what Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor achieves.

We’ve all heard the old adage about reserving judgement until we’ve walked a mile in a man’s shoes, but that always assumes a lack of empathy and the need for a radical thought experiment just to imagine outside the self. In reality, as Mike James reminds us, we are always wearing each others shoes, although sometimes we lack the insight to see them, or we keep our steps hidden. Just as the surrealists were not about random weird imagery, but about making the real experience of our psyches visible, so too does Mike James make the multiplicity of self and the malleability of the body legible in his prose poems.

Like in his previous collections, My Favorite Houseguest and First-Hand Accounts from Made Up Places, James populates some of his book with portraits of celebrities. Yet, these portraits are never about the celebrity him or herself so much as they are about the process of painting them and seeing the pigment of self in each brushstroke. In “The Films of Burt Reynolds” he begins with “not the films, but the books about the films…Someone loved Burt enough to watch each, then write descriptively.” While James writes about someone writing about Burt, he’s also writing about himself, and how his “mother said she’d marry him if he’d just stop by.” For men, Burt’s mustachioed masculinity is something we’re supposed to identify through as he “walked down the carpet with Dinah, Lauren, Sally and Loni.” Yet, when he is written about, he becomes an object of grammar. Straight, gay, or in between, all men must ask, do we want to be Burt, do we want Burt, do we want to be wanted by Burt, or is it all of the above? Continue reading

“In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased” By Chase Dimock

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In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased

By Chase Dimock

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Five years ago, my father, grandfather, and I remodeled the bathroom in our family cabin. This was no luxury ski chalet or time share condo masquerading as a cabin. My great-grandfather built it himself in the 30s with the help of his five daughters and the boy scout troop he lead. Great-grandpa was not a master carpenter or plumber, so as we tore away the rotting drywall and jackhammered the cracked cement floor, we discovered an unexpected and unconventional layout of pipes. It was a map of kludges, improvisations, and applications of sheer brute force.

The more Dad and Grandpa studied how the pipes were fashioned and connected, the more it became clear that the success of the remodeling job became dependent on interpreting Great-Grandpa’s plumbing choices, and then predicting where the pipes would take us. They had to think like Great-Grandpa, and in the process, his cognition and imagination became reanimated. The pipes were a network of thought like the neural pathway of synapses in his mind. Debates between Dad and Grandpa over the next step in the project evolved into nostalgic appreciations of Great-Grandpa’s resourcefulness. They were once again enveloped in the creative vision of a man who built his own carnival rides and managed to keep a citrus grove thriving during the severe rationing of WWII.

If you clicked over here from Facebook or Twitter, you are probably wondering why I am beginning a remembrance of Okla Elliott with an anecdote about plumbing. My Great-Grandpa died well before I was born, so the experience of a man’s resurrection through exploring his handiwork was only secondhand. I could see it in Dad’s and Grandpa’s faces, but I could not feel it directly. In August 2017, when I took over As It Ought To Be following Okla’s untimely passing, I finally experienced this phenomena first hand.

As the new Managing Editor, I have been combing through nearly a decade of articles on As It Ought To Be. This has meant figuring out formatting, style, and organization as Okla had established them, and charting how he evolved in these ways. I’ve read through all of the posts Okla authored from the beginning of the site to his final article about Lent and its political and social possibilities posted just weeks before he unexpectedly passed. Just as the plumbing revived the spirit of Great-Grandpa for my father and grandfather, so too has editing and organizing As It Ought To Be kept Okla’s voice as a writer and thinker perpetually resonant in my mind.

Although I have known Okla since right around the founding of As It Ought To Be, one tends to forget how people were when you first knew them. You don’t always remember them as they ended either. Rather, you remember people for their established role in your life and you preserve them in that stance. You build a home for them in the structure of your existence, and when they die, that’s where they stay, beautifully enshrined in your memory as a witness and an ally. This would be the Okla of 2010-2014, when we were grad students drinking Bushmills, debating Sartre, and geeking out over the genius of Professor Cary Nelson. Like so many published here on As It Ought To Be and in many of his other creative endeavors, he encouraged me to expand my mind, amplify my voice, and apply my sense of reason and empathy toward engaging with the world’s social issues and political problems.

Reviewing Okla’s writings and editorial work has reacquainted me with the younger, wildly ambitious Okla, and introduced me to the older, more circumspect Okla with whom I wish I had spent more time after I graduated and bounced around the country. As I edit the site, I find myself more and more thinking like Okla, most notably in the joy I take in providing a spotlight for the work of my talented friends. And yes, like my Great-Grandfather’s patchwork of pipes, Okla left plenty of ingenious kludges and creative engineerings for me to smooth out as I have begun to archive the site. I’m slowly putting together more organized and navigable collections of past articles while considering how to preserve his vision through necessary remodelings and additions for As It Ought To Be’s progress into the future. This year, that meant moving to the new As It Ought To Be Magazine site, primarily because his password for renewing the domain registration passed with him.

Throughout this process, one nagging worry has loomed over me; memory is malleable. Every time we remember something, we change it. We access it differently, and then add that moment of access to the memory. It’s as if every time you play a tape, the ambient noise of the room in which you played it is added to the song. I worry that the act of remembering distances us from the original affect of its experience to the point where we can no longer access it directly. Men and moments become replaced by their mythologies, and while this is how we carry them into the future, a part of me wants to reach back and relive moments that have not been codified into a monument.

I challenge myself to remember without memorializing, knowing this is nearly impossible. What can I remember that is authentic to the moment in which it happened, and not just a generalized narrative my memory has woven out of collected experiences? I remember Korean tacos, extremely cold walks around the library late at night, how he liked living in on-campus housing even though the apartments looked like Cold War era bomb shelters inside. I remember when he went with me to a memorial for teenage LGBT victims of suicide and I cried uncontrollably.

I remember that over one Summer, he lost a considerable amount of weight, and when I returned that Fall, he seemed so much smaller than I remembered him. But after a few minutes of talking, his stature immediately inflated back to feeling ten feet tall. I guarantee that the majority of Okla’s friends misremember how tall he actually was because his personality enveloped every room he entered.

Although I am fortunate to have not lost many people close to me, I have learned that after someone dies as a biological organism, there are several other layers of their being that die at different intervals. Obviously the most painful is the loss of their presence. The second most dreaded is the moment when nothing new will come from them. If you can keep uncovering new things about them posthumously, one of the most beautiful parts of their life remains operational. That layer remains alive. In the memoir Maus, Art Spiegelman plunges into deep despair when he learns his father had burned his deceased mother’s diaries. The idea of reading new words and experiencing new ideas from his mother promised to bring her back to life, and their burning further cemented the painful reality of her passing. The fact that artists like Prince die with huge catalogs of unreleased material eases the grief of their passing.

Managing As It Ought To Be has kept Okla very much alive for me in this sense because I am constantly coming across something he had crafted that I had not seen before. It’s been oddly Proustian at times. I’ll come across something Okla drafted or edited, and a certain phrase will suddenly trigger a memory, reminding me of a time we discussed this topic, or just a momentary visualization of the expression on his face that I know he had as he wrote it.

Reposting his article on Lent a few weeks ago reminded me of the arguments we used to have over religion. In grad school, he was an ardent atheist. He could not believe that I could maintain my faith given how terribly the church has treated some minority populations such as LGBT people. This was a completely valid argument. He knew that this was the most contradictory and fragile element of my professed beliefs, and like any philosopher challenging what seemed unreasonable, he aimed directly for it. And yet, I knew he was not trying to disable me. Rather, he was sparring with me. If I was going to stand on this principle, it needed to be swifter and more resilient. After many of our debates, my ideas came home bloodied and bruised, and sore in the morning, but became far stronger in the long run.

In the final years of his life, Okla became receptive to the teachings of the church. Inspired by the new pope, he began writing about theology and social justice. I regret that I never had the chance to revisit this topic with him. What did he read or hear that spoke to him? I hope someday I’ll get the opportunity to read his unfinished writings and begin round two of our conversation.

 

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

“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

Welcome To The New As It Ought To Be Magazine

 

Starting today, As It Ought To Be has officially moved to its new name and site: As It Ought To Be Magazine. Aside from a new name, address, and an updated look, all the features of the classic AIOTB remain. Every article from the original site has been imported to the new one. There is a search bar on top where you can look for all of our posts from the past. We are in the process of building a catalog of our past articles, which you can access in the pages on the menu above. The old site will continue to exist as an archive, eventually under the address asitoughttobe.wordpress.com

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Thanks for your continued readership and support!

Chase Dimock
Managing Editor