Book Review

Mark Tursi

The Biography of Broken Things
Sean Thomas Dougherty
Mitki/Mitki Press ($10)

These days, stream of consciousness seems like a rather passé relic of early Modernism. However, this isn’t necessarily the case if the language and images are energized, poignant, and vital. This is precisely what you will find when you read Sean Thomas Dougherty’s new work, The Biography of Broken Things, which is a quasi-stream of consciousness collection of vignettes that spill into each other, fragment, and then explode into numerous but distinct polymorphous constructions. I use the general label, ‘work,’ because this book defies genre categories; it is prose poetry, fiction, biography, autobiography, cultural criticism and philosophy. Dougherty’s range is immense, and his subject matter ranges from urban street life to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment to surrealist poet Caesar Vallejo to “a signifying snake crisscrossed with John Coltrane and Saint Van Gogh” (41).

The author’s language is as natural tackling metaphysical dilemmas of identity as it is describing a street corner in the Bronx. In one instance, you find yourself sliding through intense and vivid details, and the next, confronted with racial politics. The language is charged with an intense momentum and explosive energy that is full of alliteration, internal rhyme, and assonance—all devices that are part of Dougherty’s pallet as a performance poet, and which we now see working equally as well on the printed page:

I recall that whole car mural I saw earlier in the evening painted by some brash boy with a backwards baseball cap, unsung Diego Rivera from the Bronx, riding the trains of paint over the Island to Spanish Harlem, those shimmering lights, those hours between Michaelangelo (sic) and Basquiat, between Brahms and Boogie Down, the ground shakes before the silence of people passing (32-33)

Imagistic urban detail fills the pages of this unique biography. However, it is not simply a romp through quotidian reality and human experience, but, rather, it is a textured and multi-faceted work that often foregrounds language and process. At times, the narrator seems surprised by being ‘thrown into’ a reality that is manipulated by and through language and history:

. . . only hemlocked Socrates is smoked by the flash fire choked histories . . . the speaker called Being and art are as closely bound on a page about to become, begun unraveling the form like a fine sweat, reminding us the diferance’, a world of things so lovely somewhere between childhood and addiction I thought I was working the entire orchestra of winter (40)

The form and structure of Biography of Broken Things follows its content; it is broken, fragmented and disjointed, but entirely compelling. Moreover, Dougherty’s text is hopeful and elegant, which is convincing and surprisingly effective:

. . . the persistence of living, a persistence of broken strings, a sort of almost silenced song meaning for some things there is a music beyond even music, beyond even musing, for some things sing without saying so, as when the city bus heaves and my son laughs and throws his hands in the air, as when he danced in a circle the first day it snowed. (56)