essays by Curtis Smith
2015, Dock Street Press
154 pages, paperback, $14.00
There is no clear and simple definition of the essay, and for that we can all be thankful. From the time of its invention by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the essay has been a vehicle for analysis, history, humor, memoir, philosophy, and anything else the author likes. It can be long or short, informal or literary. Montaigne rambles and is intensely personal. But the essays of Addison, Steele and Johnson from the early 1700s are models of detachment and precision.
Curtis Smith uses the essay to present brief sketches of daily life, calm observations, and beautifully written scenes, with characters and dialog. His new book Communion has twenty-one short essays, all but one of which have appeared in literary magazines such as Hippocampus, The MacGuffin, and JMWW. The book has a clear theme, announced in the first essay: the gentle bonds of family life, especially the bond between Smith as a father and his young son, who makes his First Communion in church.
As he sits in the pew beside his wife and elderly mother, the author confesses: “I admire faith. I feel the tug of spirit. I believe in forces beyond my comprehension. But I falter when human hands claim these notions.” Several pages later he says: “Although my heart remains open, I can’t deny the peace that has accompanied the abandonment of my struggle to justify God.”
The title and cover, a photograph of three round communion wafers, are a little misleading, then. This is not a conventional faith journey. One essay is called “On Not Believing,” while another is called “Prayer, a Personal Evolution.” Yet the second begins years ago on the roof of a factory, where Smith works as a “college kid.” With a bucket of hot tar, he repairs leaks with a maintenance crew, under an overseer nicknamed “The Reverend” for his exclamations such as “Praise Jesus!” The essay moves to Smith’s first school-teaching job, with its homeroom “moment of silence,” then to Smith praying with his son at bedtime. In eight pages, by showing us these three pictures, he makes a case for “the tangible miracle of prayer in this non-believer’s life.”
A friend of mine says that an essay must argue for an idea. Aldous Huxley says that an essay may be one of three things, the first being a “fragment of reflective autobiography.” Smith’s “Forty Yards” is only two pages long, and all it does is show a footrace between the author and his son, from the woods where they have been hiking to their car in a parking lot. We know from other essays that Smith is about age fifty, and his son is about age eight. From “Decline” and elsewhere, we know that Smith feels the bodily and mental effects of age. In this scene, “My son pants, but not like me. He is young. He grows stronger by the day.” The boy wins the race. “In the tiniest of ways, a border has been crossed, and now, neither of us can go back.”
Smith never names his son. Other family members are “my wife,” “my brother,” and “my in-laws.” The essay “On Rereading” begins: “The call comes late on a Sunday evening. My father has had a stroke. It’s serious, my mother says, her words weighty for a family where voices are seldom raised.” The father lingers for a few days in a hospital bed, and the family waits by his side. Smith tells us that he reads Bernard Malamud during the night vigil. But at the end, all we know is: “My father breathes, but not for long. The story is over, and what remains are its echoes, the words and memories I will carry beyond this day.” What words and memories? For that matter, where are we? In which hospital and city?
Two or three times, the essays mention a “chocolate factory” in town, and there are several references to Pennsylvania, including cold winter weather and driving on I-80, which runs the breadth of the state. Smith’s website confirms that he lives in Hershey. The website has links to interviews, where the curious reader can dig into personal information. Smith’s most recent publication is another book of essays titled Witness, from Sunnyoutside Press. He has published three novels, two collections of flash fiction, and two story collections from Press 53. The back cover of Communion says: “Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals.”
Given this commitment to literary self-expression, the lack of names, places and descriptive detail is puzzling. Smith can be witty and earthy when he chooses: “I’d never heard of the town where I’d settle, a roadmap blip in rural Pennsylvania. . . a town seemingly forgotten by time, a place where many students wore the royal blue jackets of the Future Farmers of America, the smell of cow shit carried on more than one pair of boots.”
“On Aggression” flashes back to a “beautiful spring afternoon in my senior year of high school,” when two thugs attack Smith and a friend. Smith “became aware of the long kitchen knife inches from my hand. Thirty-three years have passed since that afternoon.” He leaves the knife there and is badly beaten. The essay ends with his son wielding “a wooden samurai sword,” a ninth birthday gift.
In “The Fears of Children” we get a vivid picture of the boy’s fears of disease and death. In “Left Behind” father and son discuss ghosts. “A ghost is a memorial your body gives itself,” the boy says. In other pages, we see his obsession with the weapons and army tactics of ancient Rome. “My son prefers documentaries to cartoons. War, science, nature . . . He drinks in facts and repeats them later with unflagging precision.” The bragging of a proud father is audible and perfectly in tune. So, among other thing, this book is a loving and often touching portrait of a boy. I look forward to reading about him in years to come.