May 14th, 2008

Review by Karen J. Weyant (email)

by R.T. Smith

University of Arkansas Press
201 Ozark Ave.
Fayetteville , AR 72701
ISBN 978-1-55728-853-0
120 pp., $16.00

When a reader ventures into a book by a well-known and accomplished poet, there are, of course, certain expectations. Perhaps, that reader expects a certain style or voice. Perhaps the material should be familiar or comfortable. I was that reader. When I picked up R.T. Smith's newest book, Outlaw Style, I wanted to revisit the south, its history, its music, its people--all subjects I have explored before in Smith's previous works, Brightwood and The Hollow Log Lounge. I was not disappointed. Smith conjures up ghosts that may sound vaguely familiar, but they are far from being echoes of the voices in his earlier works.
Smith's collection is divided into three part. Taking center stage (no pun intended) is the actor/assassin John Wilkes Booth as the star of the middle section titled The Booth Prism. For most of us, Booth is the infamous figure leaping from the presidential box at Ford's Theatre after shooting President Abraham Lincoln. Few of us know much about the manhunt afterwards, or even the details of the assassin's personal life. This section's first poem, Booth: A Quick History, relays a brief bio of the man who followed in his father's footsteps to become "America's matinee's idol." From this poem, the reader learns in quick snapshots grounded in narrative verse, the story of Booth. We learn that he "held his liquor well and guaranteed good box office / from St. Louis to Boston." We also know that "After Lee's surrender / he saw everything as theater and tragedy." Finally, we gain insight about Booth's legacy:

acquaintances claimed to meet him in Hong Kong, Paris
or the brothels of New Orleans, while an effigy alleged
to be his mummy toured the country in sideshows
billed as Remains of the Villainous Assassin. Bad luck--
ruin or fire--followed every owner of the grisly display,
but the crowds came, rain or shine. They stood in line
for hours and whispered, appalled, as they waited to pay.

Following this poem, we hear the voices of others from Booth's short life. In One-Man Show, we listen to an actor display a sort of admiration for Booth mimicking him: "I touch up my mustache / with lamp black, as Booth did, and tighten the silk cravat," even as his wife questions his choice saying "What will people think? You expect applause?" In The Prophet Boston Corbett on Shooting Booth, Booth's killer fancies himself some sort of avenging angel and declares in the first line: "God touched my shoulder. I was chosen."

Corbett may have felt blessed by his act, but it seems that the women in Booth's life have only been cursed. In Keepsake, we learn "of the many who wore clippings of his hair / in lockets because he had been their matinee" including Lucy Hale, the daughter of Senator Hale, who loved Booth:

Shocked by the breaking news of Wilkes' role
in the murder, she pled in print for evidence
of his innocence, then swore to wed him,
if necessary, in the scaffold's shadow.

And in Asia, we hear the voice of Booth's sister who says in a letter to her cousin Sophie, that "I never guessed at the plot nor heard him utter / anything of murder" but "I was not wholly in the dark." Her confession reveals a troubled man who for "so many / nights he slept on our sofa in those high boots / with sewn-in holsters and counseled strangers / in the parlor all ungodly hours." Finally, there is the voice found in Charm: Anna Surratt Tonry, 1900 who declares that "Everyone / Booth touched was doomed to suffer" and that "Our smiling villain brought us all to enduring harm." Certainly, Anna, whose mother Mary Surratt was hanged for being a part of the assassination conspiracy felt little empathy for Booth or his causes.
Smith's brief dedication to Booth's role in history is a central part of his collection, and certainly the stories, told through precise and emotional details are worth hearing. However, these dramatic tales shouldn't be allowed to overpower the voices in the rest of the collection. In the book's first section, the spirits are quiet, almost hushed silent. As a reader, I was inclined to lean into the pages of the book to hear their voices. In Thrush Witch, we hear an adult telling the story of a childhood infection "when my tongue went white as hen feathers" and "I could not warble a word" the memory of a woman who healed him: "She touched her mouth to mine. Her breath / flowing in, rendered a sweetness worth / more than any song I've ever known." In Carrion Cry, the speaker watches "a vulture flock" musing "Politicians / buzzards--no difference to me / There ought to be a bounty." And in The Restless Dead: Walker County, Georgia, a lone spirit longing to move on speaks in the first person: "I keep rehearsing / all my trespasses, my simmering sins." Instead, the specter is "left to fester and pine, left wanting / with every fiber to climb toward heaven / to turn pure as sap and seep into the stem / of the scarlet trillium, into the bloom."

And then there is the haunting Dar He, a poem I consider to be the most powerful piece in the whole collection. In this poem, "a lone listener to the antiphony of crickets" remembers the case of Emmett Till "nearly half a century" before. His thoughts, haunted by "a smashed body with one/eye gouged out and a bullet in his brain" and a mother who, wanting the world to see what was done to her son, requested "an open-casket funeral." He is also haunted by the memory of the trial and a lone witness: "the old man--a great uncle / really--fought back his sobs and pointed at the accused / his finger like a pistol for the heart. 'Dar he' / he said..." Stalked by his own memories and his personal demons, the speaker contemplates his own parents: "though in their eighties they have no love / for any race darker than a tanned Caucasian." Clearly there is something that triggers the speaker's memory of the past, of his own memories, of the prejudice found in his own family, but it is not until the end of the poem that we learn that it is from the whispers of the forest around him:

And if this is an exercise in sham shame I am
feeling, some wish for absolution, then I have to
understand the wave of nausea crossing me
this conviction that it is not simply irony
making the whir of voices from the pine trees
now seem to say Dar he, Dar he, Dar he.

This quiet humming of personal memory, history and nature turns louder towards the end of the book, with many of the poems in the last section dedicated to music. If at the beginning of this book I was straining to hear the sounds of the past mixed in with nature, then at the end I was almost tapping my foot, trying to match the music found in the lyrical narratives. In Gypsy Fiddle the persona admires an instrument that "can chuckle like a hen / mimic rain or lure the train sound / from a distant ravine." In The Carter Scratch, the poet commemorates Maybelle Carter, whose "fingers were deft but leathered / from scraping in the hardscrabble earth / to snatch choke weeds from the bean vines" and the music she made famous: "she improvised an outlaw style" that would influence country music forever. And in Plantation of the Mad (subtitled Blues for Buddy Bolden), the poet celebrates the life and music of a New Orleans cornet player. Seemingly lost in music history, Bolden was institutionalized in a mental asylum by the time he was 30. Still, the description of his music, perhaps laced with society's definition of insanity, is breathtaking:

...that smile
would cut you at the knees, but he played it hot
with the brass, red sauce, and peppered oysters,
No mercy, hardcore, jazzy with the fury of the man
driving a horse to Hell B flat, flat out, making
the sound fresh by shear scream.

If you have read R.T. Smith's other works, then you may find that the content and style of Outlaw Blues is nothing really new. In other words, this work is familiar ground. Like his other collections, Smith strives to capture the past of the south, however beautiful, violent, or disturbing this past may be. These past voices are worth hearing. Sometimes they come as the songs of birds, sometimes in the twang of a musical instrument. Indeed, whatever form, I would say that these are voices that need to be heard.


Karen J. Weyant is a 2007 Fellow in poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts and her most recent work can be seen in Slipstream, The ComstockReview and Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. She has work forthcoming in Pennsylvania English and the minnesota review. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York.




Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.