‘Trespass’ by Thomas Dooley
Even a cursory read of Thomas Dooley’s debut picks up an altogether Yankee register, an O’Neillian reserve and penchant for what might be called “parlor pressure”: cram enough dour, simmering resentment in a room and you’re bound to engross the onlooker. His voices grapple ceaselessly with what isn’t said, peeling layers from his subjects with equal measures of reluctance and morbid curiosity; in this way, the book curiously implies that it’s the latest in a dizzying series of attempts to set trauma to words. These layers come off like clothing in sub-zero conditions, exposing reader and obsession to one another in blistering, clipped episodes. The process has considerable fidelity to hurt. It generates pearls in the sense of persistent irritation.
His scenes (passing neatly for stagework) are served immaculately by a brisk, underspoken cadence, very fitting for the chill father-son axis around which they revolve (and revolve they do—Trespass is largely defined by periodic returns to its earlier self). Nary a punch is pulled: almost immediately, we’re thrown headlong into the speaker’s father’s defining crime, a teenage act of sexual predation. To go further here would deprive the book of its key developments; instead, witness the haunted, chiseled diction Dooley uses as frames in two subsequent pieces, “Eastern Red Cedars” and “Cedar Closet: 1955”:
inside a cedar closet, my father at sixteen
one bulb setting
your rose panels aflame, his lit face
the white heart, his narrow body, wick
it’s spring. My father’s hair
thins, dull moth-gray, the last
clouds sink like sacks, the trees
are wet, sweat
one a body, damp wool.
It’s simultaneously an opioid reverie and a precisely disclosed imagist flicker, as through a narrow aperture. This doubling—often mirrored or contrasting takes on the same recollection—functions as both compulsion and cross-consideration. We are thereby abrasively acquainted with coding in Dooley’s work: modes of adulthood, but also all manner of closeted or sequestered behavior. By illustrating multiple takes on a scene, he’s able to highlight elements that went unnoticed until the adult apparatus developed—and the way emotional stunting can preclude that apparatus, inducing hopelessness.
By the same token, doubling operates liturgically, buoying robust Catholic undercurrents, as in “Ordinary Time,” whose nouns alone could operate as a poem-with-the-poem:
In the sacristy my father
rinsed cruets smothered wicks
the monsignor pulled off
a chasuble of emerald silk
moved his hands
down my father
It’s proof of Dooley’s skill that predictive dread festers with every new piece, an antiphonic conceit confirmed by the reader every time a pivotal line comes around again. That he’s able to deploy inevitability via such thin (not underdeveloped, the poems teach) lines devastates us. In a pale, leprous way, we’re made to learn what we already know: another doubling. The twinned poems—and the couplets he loves to make them from—recall the perceptive and reproductive organs that define human, embodied symmetry. Then they cast outward, engulfing concepts like “body of prayer,” “coitus,” “boundaries,” and “ownership” (it’s called Trespass, after all), crossing signals in the manner of a mind on the brink of failure.
As the motifs come into themselves, Dooley begins to set fascinating devices to the page, fulcrums of a sort that delineate character and assert his talent in one fell swoop:
there are some accustations
your niece, well
to a therapist,
he tells her to
My mother runs
to the kitchen and vomits
in the sink.
The brief, asburdist dips into the obscene enact their own taboo nature, forcing us out of the poem for a moment of taken-aback laughter. The innapropriateness emerges, it turns out, from the same bodily vehicle that earlier rendered worship; the ritual consumption and expulsion propels the work outward even as it undergoes peristalsis in the mind of the reader. It’s an address, an interrogation, and furthermore, that characteristic brevity successfully indicts grandeur (read: fatherhood) on all fronts: in this imploding family, the center indeed does not hold.
Yet the thrust of Trespass is not solely Oedipal murder; the Beloved (by turns redemptive and poisonous) inspires passages of exquisite gentleness, as in “Away,” presented here in its entirety:
I pile books on the bed
in your place, calculate
the weight of you, I crowd
the pillows like
bodies, all night I’m wasteful
So few words to complicate the perspective. Dooley excels at short-circuiting the narrative sweep before it dissipates to simple diarism, abrupting the line to convey both artful restraint and resolutely stoic will. He’s lyric to the core, of course, and he doesn’t ever deviate from lived events; what rescues his process from prose, though, are the frequent, joyful sonic artifacts throughout. Typically he allows just one or two of these contrapuntal flourishes per poem, often at the end: “Sperm Donor” closes by naming the speaker’s lover’s issue
that quiet boat
you send into me
that never finds dock
…and, just after, in “Guest Room,” they recline like
Towards the end of “Separation”—the serialized long poem comprising the book’s middle segment—Dooley revels in his sonic toolbox, a Reinhardt or a Gould fully embracing the extemporizing urge, all the better for forty frugal pages of setup. For once, his lines unfurl with giddy electricity:
go now to the cedary wield of smooth
creatures of glabrous torsos caprine legs who am I
to clasp seedstorms barehanded mornings when the surf
clung to its mist stubborn
In many ways, we have an ideal first book here. There are intimations of crackling range and depth well suited to the task at hand, dredging and redredging calcified shocks and crises with singular focus. It serves beautifully as a model to rectify adolescent self-seriousness, even as it archetypically channels the serious in the course of its investigations. In other words: young poets could learn to read through Trespass, to observe, to imprint, and ultimately to write through their own hurt. Perhaps it’s best to regard Dooley’s debut apophatically, however. It neither prescribes nor censures nor condones nor saves; such is the discoverable quality of the text, of what it becomes. Nevertheless it ought to be read.