Witness by Curtis Smith
(Sunnyoutside Press, Buffalo, NY, 2010)
Reviewed by Jessica Handler
An essay collection that opens with the phrase, “there’s a spot on your child’s heart,” tells us immediately where it’s headed: parenthood, worry, and, we hope, a positive outcome to a danger-ridden start. Curtis Smith’s Witness accomplishes this and much more.
In “Vision,” the first of eighteen connected essays, Smith diverts us instantly from that opening line delivered by his wife’s physician reading her ultrasound, back to his own childhood faith in the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, and astronauts among the Aztecs. How could this lost belief in chance fail to intercede in rescuing his unborn son’s health?
With focus on the personal and the larger world, “Witness” observes that son’s early childhood and its effects on his meditative father. As witness, Smith observes his child’s life and the world they both inhabit.
Quotidian concerns loom large for a dad and his boy. In “Giraffe,” two toys are his child’s confidantes and talismans, while in “Ink,” Smith at first resists the hipster’s urge to get a tattoo, finally succumbing and having his son’s birth date inscribed on his shoulder. It’s in “The Prettiest Lie,” though, where the inner and outer life of a father beautifully collide, as Smith convinces himself, as the Beltway snipers crowd the news, that “everything’s going to be okay.”
The strongest forays into that territory of father, son, and bearing witness to the untrustworthy world are in the essays “On a Free Press,” in which Smith recalls his mother excising photos of “see through blouses or pot smoking hippies or mass graves” from the family’s Life magazines during the Vietnam War, and “Two Women,” in which the photographs of Jessica Lynch’s rescue, and Lynndie England’s snapshots of the torture perpetrated at Abu Ghraib, “lend the illusion of neutrality.” In each, Smith puts forward images of insidious danger that surround the most regular of lives lived in wartime, as the Life magazines in his childhood home “nestled beneath the candy dish and a vase of plastic daisies.”
The eponymous essay, “Witness,” bookends the collection. Smith breaks form here, with paragraphs short and insistent as heartbeats—a kind of ultrasound in their own way—as his father fades and dies of a stroke. Fathers have fathers, he shows us, and “there is nothing I can do but be a witness to the inevitable. Please, let me do that well.”
Smith does this well indeed, as witness, writer, and father. The end page of the collection is a joyous nod to his son and the circle that generations make. Here, his toddler son’s lumpen, earnest scribble of a man’s form, merely a loop with limbs, promises a future. Of his son’s “first man,” Smith asks, “Is it you? Is it me?”
Curtis Smith’s readers, as well as his son, are in the very best of hands.
Jessica Handler’s first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Eight Great Southern Books in 2009” and Atlanta Magazine’s “Best Memoir of 2009.” Her nonfiction has appeared in Tin House, Defunct.com, r-kv-ry.com, More Magazine, Ars Medica, and The Chattahoochee Review, and is forthcoming in New South. She received the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and a special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Handler teaches creative writing in Atlanta.