Weekly Poem: Thomas Dooley dramatizes family pain passed through generations

Thomas Dooley’s debut collection of poems, “Trespass,” published in September, deals with the duality of vulnerability and forgiveness.

“I think that sometimes going into a very vulnerable place, or a place where the unsayable is trying to be said, that is really what felt like an exciting moment of creation,” Dooley told Art Beat. “That’s where I wanted my poems to live: in that space of possible danger, possible confusion.”

Coming from a theater background, Dooley was intrigued by the drama of family. The story of “Trespass” plays out in three acts. The first third sets the scene: the narrator’s father was abused by a priest as a child; then as a teenager, the father abuses his niece. The final act reckons with the repercussions of those moments in the family’s history.

Sandwiched within the broader family story is a narrative of the protagonist’s first love — specifically, the end of that love. Using that structure, Dooley presents multiple levels of separation: between the narrator and his lover, between personal narrative and family narrative and between reality and desire.

The poems in the collection draw on episodes from Dooley’s life, but he shies away from forming a definitive line between fiction and reality. While some experiences may be reflected in the poems, he is more interested in the nature of memory itself. The collection explores how different members of the family perceive their shared history through their own unique lenses, what he calls the “polyvocal quality of family.”

“I think memory is such an interesting part of this story,” he said. “It allows for this real/unreal, said/unsaid, seen/unseen quality of our lives.”

Playing with those dichotomies, the poem “Maybe In An Atlas” explores minute hypotheticals that could have prevented the father from being abused and becoming an abuser.

Listen to Thomas Dooley read “Maybe In An Atlas” from his debut collection “Trespass.”

Maybe In An Atlas

Maybe another New Jersey
somewhere. Linden wood
as cash cow. And a way out. If my father grew
taller that year, sudden. Reached
the high altar wicks, a Moses
in Egypt. Bigger than the priests. What if deus
ex machina. Or a catcher.
No rye. Rye watered
down. Rocks to mean rocks. Not
glacial. Not a cold hand
anywhere. A siren sounds
on skin. Maybe a pie
in the window. Adults made big gestures
with giant hands. He wasn’t soft.
Boney, but not folded
like egg whites, hankies.
In his yearbook: “Aspiration: farmer.”
Tall as corn, as noon sun. Only if he grew
taller, sudden, he wouldn’t be
lightweight linden, maybe a hundred
proof. She was proof. Girls
were softer. Maybe his hand
looked giant. And she lay down
softly. Like he was made to, maybe.

When the collection was selected as a winner in the 2013 National Poetry Series competition, “Maybe In An Atlas” wasn’t in it. Dooley was suddenly struck by the missing voice of “what if” in his collection, and he wrote the poem to fill that void.

“The idea of ‘maybe’ is very powerful to me,” he said, “because it’s full of doubt, it’s full of consequence. Maybe if the consequence, or maybe if the situation was different, the actual events would have changed.”

To write the poems, Dooley allowed himself to be vulnerable to the different voices wanting to heard as part of the story.

In the case of the opening poem, “Cherry Tree,” that voice comes from the titular character, a tree. As the surrounding lawn is mowed, the tree becomes vulnerable and exposed, themes that continue to play out for the human characters across the collection.

Listen to Thomas Dooley read “Cherry Tree” from his debut collection “Trespass.”

Cherry Tree

My father
mows tight squares
around her, she

rains pink on him
a rock

cracks inside the blades
she beats down

I’ve grown
too lush

don’t leave me
with him

From the book Trespass: Poems by Thomas Dooley. Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Dooley. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Editor’s note: This article originally stated that the father in “Trespass” abuses his niece as an adult, not a teenager. It was updated on Dec. 30, 2014.

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