by Curtis Smith
ISBN 978-1-934513-28-6, 150 PP, $18.00
The cover of Curtis Smith's collection of essays, Witness, sports a stormy watercolor-and-ink composition full of red and black billowy clouds and long, unbroken lines of rain. Behind this foreboding a slit of orange peeks from the space behind all this gloom, reminding us that there is calm before (and after) the storm. In Witness, this cycle occurs in reverse, beginning with the discovery of a small gap in Smith's yet-unborn son's heart and ending with the loss of Smith's father—in between deep sorrows rest the little joys (and also worries) that comprise young parenthood and life.
One shouldn't mistake Witness for a gloomy, furrow-browed contemplation on life, however—in fact, it is something of which Smith's writing, always quiet and competent with lyrical richness, is incapable. Smith pulls the small threads, the 2 x 4s, out of the rollercoaster frame and examines their tenacity rather than taking the hills and their cheap thrills.
It is a strategy that pays off, as evidenced by in the first essay, "Vision":
Where some writers are content to capture the cusp of idea and emotion with a big rhetorical flourish, a splash on the canvas, Smith is a deliberate, workmanlike writer, and one can hear in his weighting of words and diction and rhythms how seriously he takes the small craft, the sentence level. It's a pleasure as much as a lesson to share these little vignettes with Smith as he documents his son in space, growing and pushing against a landscape that pushes back but sometimes budges as well. Smith is best when he and son are pitted against this landscape, such as in "In the Woods":
Witness is full of such time capsules: taking walks, partaking in the rituals of waking and sleeping, when Curtis is tempering his toddler son's id-driven desires, and when he is indulging him the inevitable society-sanctioned trickery, such as in "Little Devil," where Smith and his wife wrestle over whether their son is old enough, at three, to trick or treat. Smith, a long-time educator, also shines when he connects these first steps of his son's life to the blinding pace of chutes and ladders his own students must navigate at the high school level, often with disastrous results, such as in "A Knife to the Heart."
The missteps, and there are but few, occur when he wanders away from home, such as "We Care" and "On a Free Press in Wartime" and "Two Women from West Virginia" (about Lynnie England and Jessica Lynch). The essays themselves are competent, quality pieces, but they seem a little too big for the world Smith has drawn in Witness, leeching instead outside of the borders of small-town home life, even if "Two Women" portrays exactly the type of small-town female students Smith teaches every day. Perhaps, after sharing the joys and sorrows of a young father and his boy, the trials and tribulations of war and greater battles feel such a big leap.
Smith ends with the title essay, "Witness," about his father's death, and the circle is complete:
If we could only be such eloquent witnesses as Smith. His essays begin as ripples in the pond and crest with each read, breaking upon the shore powerfully but with deep epiphany and grace.—Jen Michalski