A Review of John Dorsey’s 'Tombstone Factory'

By James H Duncan

The older I get, the more I realize there is very little magic in poetry, at least not in the sense of the lofty ideals, fifty-dollar words, and holy designations we often attribute to our poetry and poets. Hell, I even see that plastic magic wand waving in my own reviews sometimes. They feel good, sound great, but in truth they are off the mark. Reading John Dorsey’s latest collection, Tombstone Factory, confirms this for me, but in a very good way. To me, Dorsey’s work isn’t suffused with chest thumping and 'underground' posturing. Instead there is connectivity, truth, and realism grounded in hard experience. I can see where he’s walked. It’s familiar, it’s personal, and it confirms my belief that poetry is a very grounded, real entity free of the mythical badges of honor we sometimes bestow upon it. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t important or worthy of praise, because John’s work is.

When I read John’s poems in Tombstone Factory, I see simplicity, I see honesty, and I see someone with a good measure of talent who can transcribe the emotions of looking back and feeling loss, regret, ecstatic pleasure, or warmth in such a way that I can’t help but look back on my own life and search for those things as well. His poems of visual brevity and narrative reflection, such as “the march of dimes” or “iron city independence poem,” feel like flipping through an old photo album at a friend’s house and filtering your own past through another family’s equally imprecise, careworn, and sometimes painful lens. These memories are important. They ground us, steady the ship, and while some of them bring sorrow, that’s just another part of who we are, another thing to remember on the long road to the end.

Poems such as “norm and betty’s bar” hint at sexual escapades, and “ohio in the moonlight” and “across from the mission” offer a reminder of what it feels like to be far from that lustful frivolity, to be alone deep in the night, a stranger in an all too familiar land. They are brief poems that carry much weight, just a few lines, a few words that stand at the end of a long line of experiences and sights and sensations, much like tombstones—a name, a few dates, a line to signify who and what we were. It’s an aptly named collection, because life is truly a tombstone factory, and John has nailed the importance of wandering that graveyard as often as we can. And maybe that’s where the real magic is, not in the act of creation or about who we are in the eyes of others, but in sharing that walk with the reader, one on one, quietly through the night, remembering.  


  1. Well-thought out and masterfully written analysis Mr. Duncan! Really love how you draw a parallel between Dorsey's stripped to the bone style and the compactness of tombstone inscriptions. Wish I'd thought of that:-)

  2. Thanks very much! I'm glad you enjoyed the review. It is a great collection, which makes my job a lot easier!


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