A Review of Sundown At The Redneck Carnival By John Dorsey

Chase Dimock Reviews

Sundown at the Redneck Carnival

By John Dorsey

With his trademark spare and exact style, John Dorsey’s latest book of poetry guides us through a carnival of characters that stretches across the country in space, and deep into his decades on the road. What sets Dorsey apart from the other geographers of trailer parks, small town diners, and dollar stores is the balanced empathy of his writing. There isn’t anything sensationalized or exploited. What he reports may shock, but his work never relies on shock value or gratuitously gruesome description to strike its blow. The power of his work is in his ability to make his readers empathize with the marginalized and grotesque without straying into the cheap pathos of pity.

In a poem about a man who lost part of his nose to cancer, Dorsey concludes in the final stanza:

but he’s not pretty enough for heaven
or the silver screen
& not ugly enough
to hide his face
& let some lonesome dirt road
forget he was ever there

This liminal space between beauty and ugliness, between heaven and hell, is where Dorsey’s redneck carnival is located. Beauty is always tempered by the constraints of the environment in which it lives, and what gets written off as ugly is infused with humanity, glowing with careful understanding. At this carnival, the “prettiest girl in town,” “pours drinks/ &becomes a wingless canary/ singing for tips/ in a cage filled with smoke.” Later, Dorsey’s poem for his grandmother similarly envelops us with smoke, describing her with the following:

I never remember you looking young
shaky hands lighting one cigarette
off the other
black rings under your eyes
but your smile was magic
talking about tv preachers
by their first names
as if they really did care
about your salvation

Cigarette smoke is the before and after: beauty destined to shrivel in its environment and the unsinkable beauty deep within an already withered face. As you thumb through Dorsey’s poems, the question is always, who is living in the before and who is living in the after? Who is the young and beautiful destined for pain and age, and who is the weathered soul whose beauty still flickers from inside a battle scarred body?

Take his short “Trailer Park Song, 1982” for example:

my brother
angry
red faced
screaming
& beautiful.

Brief, simple, yet unexpected. Dorsey hands us the unanticipated connection of anger and beauty without a treatise on their causal relationship. In another poem, “Love Letter for Jana Horn”:

the mailbox is full of postcards
from hipster boys
&aging dreamers
who just want
to be swallowed whole
by a desert rose

The young who are destined to become old, and the old who cling to what makes us young in spirit all desire to be consumed by beauty. In Dorsey’s poetry, beauty is as much an aspiration as it is a physical state. Physical beauty is fated to fade, which in of itself is beautiful, but the aspiration toward beauty is what remains after flesh fails.

The only time Dorsey is explicit in labeling true ugliness, is ironically, when he describes a young woman asking “for donations/ for a baby beauty pageant”:

$10 here
$5 there
for a twirl
at the baton
of immortality

sometimes there
is nothing uglier
than
hope.

It’s here where Dorsey draws somewhat of a line where his appreciation of the aspiration toward beauty stops. There is an inherent ugliness in these pageants that exploit the bodies of young people and inculcates in them a belief that beauty should be subject to the judgment of others. Yet, even in his distaste for the pageant, Dorsey isn’t judgmental of the young woman asking for donations. She has bought into the ugly side of hope when our culture commodifies our aspirations to be beautiful. The same is implied in the earlier poem about his grandmother and the TV preachers who pretend to care about her salvation. It’s not the women having hope that is ugly, but instead, the ugliness is in the cynical hope sold to them by institutions that promise what they won’t deliver.

Dorsey never patronizes his subjects by lapsing from empathy to condescension. Sympathy can often be a temporary license we give ourselves to gawk at someone’s misery. While Dorsey doesn’t shy away from presenting the sad circumstances of someone’s life, he also never infringes on their agency by flattening them into one-dimensional victims. Even the aforementioned cancer survivor:

says we are all ravenous locusts
at the same overcrowded trough
as he explains his theories on women

We can only imagine what these “theories” might be, or what he might be expressing with the locusts comment. What is sure is that these complicating aspects of the man’s personality play against any impulse to use his cancer as a thin premise for sympathy. He is not the perfect victim, just a human whose cancer is part of his story. 

Dorsey’s poems are all honest reports on the damage we all live with, and whether this damage is a circumstance of birth or self-inflicted, the damage is inextricable from our stories. For example, Dorsey bluntly spells this out in his poem “Young Man”:

david
i’m not saying 
you were no good
just rotten on the inside
like a bag of sour apples
who left us too young.

Dorsey does not fear pinpointing the rot inside this young man, but also avoids any kind of judgment on him or blame on anyone else. It is taboo to speak ill of the dead, but our culture’s fear of this taboo often leads us to invent a fictitious version of the dead that paints them as blameless and brightsides their darkness. This is more of a dishonor than providing an accurate record of the life they led because it erases all their choices and every mark they made, good or bad. It doesn’t remember the dead; it forgets them immediately and entirely.

This leads me back to what I refer to as John Dorsey’s balanced empathy. Empathy doesn’t mean excusing or ignoring the faults and failings of an individual, but understanding the trauma residing in someone’s scars, including the self-inflicted.  Dorsey’s balanced empathy calls attention to the ugliness of the sour apples rotting in all of us, but in just a few words, he makes the pain of carrying this rot momentarily beautiful.

.

Sundown at the Redneck Carnival is available via Spartan Press

About the Reviewer: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. His debut book of poetry, Sentinel Species, was published in 2020.

5 Erasure Poems By John Dorsey

Author’s Note: These poems, along with several hundred others, are part of a larger erasure collection entitled Pocatello Wildflower, which examines the words of a group of Idaho writers who worked primarily from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, including the late Bruce Embree, who really got the ball rolling in my head and heart, with a few still working today. It is my great hope that folks will be interested in the original writers work, in addition to my own. Pocatello Wildflower will be available in 2023 from Crisis Chronicles Press. Thanks for reading.

My Parents

strangers raised us
in ditchbank weeds
on combat rations

it was love
& bruises
no pity
in the blowing dust.



Moving Past the Fetish

last year’s growing storm
a lost friend

famous people
not humping boulders 
like me
in the foolish
september moon.



The River of Lovers

could burn enough nostalgia
to find comfort
in our past

a whirl of wind.



Rosie Died

goats
river rock

his father never blinked
feet first

alley shadows
lilacs

a bad dream
catches in his throat.



Pocatello Tattoo

i lost my horse

my body
a boxcar
of coaldust

pocatello
pocatello
pocatello

this country of shame
died in the trees

rolled west
in shoshone
in boise

in pocatello
pocatello
pocatello

april whiskey
on the spot

where the sun goes down
like a red-hot needle.

About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Poetry, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019), Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020), Afterlife Karaoke (Crisis Chronicles Press, 2021) and Sundown at the Redneck Carnival, (Spartan Press, 2022).. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at archerevans@yahoo.com.

Image Credit: Chase Dimock “Cholla Bone” (2021)

John Dorsey: “Paul & the Trailer Park Tornado”

.

Sign for the old Dreamland mobile-home park in Phoenix, Arizona.
.

.

Paul & the Trailer Park Tornado

the door of our trailer flapping
my heart wide open
my mother says
not to stand
by the window
where my fingers
touched everything
for the first time

while a plastic pinwheel
in the shape of a rooster
takes flight
over our roof.

.

.

About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Poetry, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019), and Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020). His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at archerevans@yahoo.com.

.

More By John Dorsey:

Anthony Bourdain Crosses the River of the Dead

Punk Rock at 45

Perpetual Motion

.

Image Credit: Carol M. Highsmith “Sign for the old Dreamland mobile-home park in Phoenix, Arizona.” (2008) The Library of Congress

John Dorsey: “One Cool Customer”

.

20211024073307_IMG_2543(1)

.

.

One Cool Customer

he comes in with dirt on his hands
asking about old doc savage novels
that nobody ever has

for a minute we can forget politics
or who had a baby
with whose husband
three generations back
before running barefoot
into the moonlight
with a sweaty paperback
in each hand.

.

.

About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Poetry, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019), and Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020). His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at archerevans@yahoo.com.

.

More By John Dorsey:

Anthony Bourdain Crosses the River of the Dead

Punk Rock at 45

Perpetual Motion

.

Image Credit: Chase Dimock “Lights Outside Ehrenberg, AZ”  (2021)

John Dorsey: “Walt Disney and Richard Branson Will Meet Again at Freedom Mausoleum”

.

cropped

.

.

Walt Disney and Richard Branson Will Meet Again at Freedom Mausoleum

past lives are all we have here
the grass kept green for golf tees
& billionaires in a space race with mortality

smoke coming from burning buildings of the dead
& the stained glass ears of a technicolor mouse
who makes us all feel safe.

.

.

About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Poetry, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019), and Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020). His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at archerevans@yahoo.com.

.

More By John Dorsey:

Anthony Bourdain Crosses the River of the Dead

Punk Rock at 45

Perpetual Motion

.

Image Credit: John Margolies “Mouse hole, Mauro’s mini golf, Hazel Park, Michigan” (1986) The Library of Congress

John Dorsey: “A Chicken Strip in the Shape of A Seahorse”

.

.

.

A Chicken Strip in the Shape of A Seahorse

sold by a high school girl
in a hairnet
who can’t swim

is proof
that god
once danced
underwater.

.

.

About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Poetry, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019), and Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020). His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at archerevans@yahoo.com.

.

More By John Dorsey:

Anthony Bourdain Crosses the River of the Dead

Punk Rock at 45

Perpetual Motion

.

Image Credit: Digitally enhanced image from Arcana, or, The museum of natural history : London, Printed by George Smeeton for James Stratford,1811. Public Domain. Image Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

John Dorsey: “Poem for Danny Bell”

.

service-pnp-fsa-8b35000-8b35500-8b35577v

.

.

Poem for Danny Bell

you had a face like a weasel
& a heart like a lion
in your late 40’s
your parents gone
you had never lived alone
carrying your faded baby picture
around the factory floor

in the morning
watching for deer
from the bus window

the sun dancing
along every wrinkle
you never noticed

the passing of time

your thin black hair
slicked back
with a cheap plastic comb

eat your lunch
apple first
tuna sandwich
with the crust cut off

wait to go home.

.

.

About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Poetry, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019), and Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020). His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at archerevans@yahoo.com.

.

More By John Dorsey:

Anthony Bourdain Crosses the River of the Dead

Punk Rock at 45

Perpetual Motion

.

Image Credit: Dorothea Lange “Baby from Mississippi parked in truck at FSA (Farm Security Administration) camp, Merrill, Oregon” (1939) The Library of Congress

John Dorsey: “Scott Wannberg Prays for Rain”

.

.

.

Scott Wannberg Prays for Rain

because he has to be doing
something up there
besides playing shuffleboard
& singing duets with john prine

he says harry crews
sucked all of the air
out of the room
reading one of his poems
croaking like a frog
who had gainesville
by the throat

saying something about how
he ate all the good flies
in a dancehall

that was never
meant
to last.

.

.

About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Poetry, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019), and Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020). His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at archerevans@yahoo.com.

.

More By John Dorsey:

Anthony Bourdain Crosses the River of the Dead

Punk Rock at 45

Perpetual Motion

.

Image Credit: Carol M. Highsmith “Rainbow and complex clouds form after many inches of rain over several days near Stockton, California ” (2012) The Library of Congress

Poetry Soundbite: A Reading and Interview with John Dorsey

.

.

.

Welcome to AIOTB Magazine’s second Poetry Soundbite, an on-going series of poetry readings and interviews. For this edition, we welcome John Dorsey, who will read from his book Sick, a collaborative collection of poems with Daniel Crocker. Dorsey’s poems explore growing up with cerebral palsy and the challenges he faced in an era before our present day accommodations for young people with disabilities.

.

.

About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Press, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019),Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020) and The Prettiest Girl at the Dance (Blue Horse Press, 2020. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at archerevans@yahoo.com.

John Dorsey: “The Prettiest Girl at Dirty Frank’s Bar”

 

 

The Prettiest Girl at Dirty Frank’s Bar

helped take the stools down every morning
& wore an eyepatch to keep out sunlight
& bad decisions

she hung art on the walls
just below a faded banner
for budweiser

& she talked about the moon landing
while dancing in a circle
with her arms out
to properly explain
the laws of gravity.

 

 

About the Author: John Dorsey lived for several years in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Teaching the Dead to Sing: The Outlaw’s Prayer (Rose of Sharon Press, 2006), Sodomy is a City in New Jersey (American Mettle Books, 2010), Tombstone Factory, (Epic Rites Press, 2013), Appalachian Frankenstein (GTK Press, 2015) Being the Fire (Tangerine Press, 2016) and Shoot the Messenger (Red Flag Press, 2017),Your Daughter’s Country (Blue Horse Press, 2019),Which Way to the River: Selected Poems 2016-2020 (OAC Books, 2020) and The Prettiest Girl at the Dance (Blue Horse Press, 2020. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. He was the winner of the 2019 Terri Award given out at the Poetry Rendezvous. He may be reached at archerevans@yahoo.com.

 

More By John Dorsey:

Anthony Bourdain Crosses the River of the Dead

Punk Rock at 45

Perpetual Motion

 

Image Credit: John Margolies “Beer sign, Seaside Heights, New Jersey” (1984) The Library of Congress