Something old, new, borrowed . . .


Some summer options:


THE OTHER IN US: Trethewey

I suspect that we have always been fascinated, and sometimes frightened or repelled, by what we now call the “other.” It sounds clinical in the abstract, but distilled to particulars nothing else seems as intriguing. Because I was reared a religious person, the first stories that come to mind are biblical. Imagine Adam and Eve’s introduction. Scholars are still trying to figure out what Jesus thought of himself. And Paul, didactic as he was, wrote movingly in Romans about how he did not understand his own actions, how he didn’t do the good he wanted but the evil he did not want to do.

The history of the United States cannot be read without understanding that much of it involves grappling with how we do and should deal with people who are other than white, male, heterosexual, European, and relatively affluent. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent Between the World and Me (Random House 2015) offered the perspective of a black man in today’s United States on what it means to be “other” than white. Of course, James Baldwin did much the same a half century ago.

Yet I cannot think of a more effective examination of otherness—an examination of what it means to see the “other” in the mirror—than Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012). For the etymologically unaware, the surface pleasure of understanding the connotations of a word we’ve used all of our lives, as in “enthralled,” shouldn’t be underestimated. The poet plays with that etymology in several of her poems. Trethewey’s heritage as the child of a white father and a black mother, however, provides the important context for these spare and absorbing poems. The four sections contain ekphrastic poems focusing on physiological difference—poems that consider what it means and has meant to be of a mixed racial heritage and how painters have depicted the physical joining of races (see particularly “Miracle of the Black Leg,” which discusses “pictorial representations” of black body parts transplanted onto otherwise white bodies)—and poems based on the black speaker’s relationship with her white father.

The fourth and final section, though, offers a slight change in tone. In “Enlightenment,” which I was pleased to find collected with other Monticello poems in Lisa Russ Spaar’s anthology Monticello in Mind: Fifty Contemporary Poems on Jefferson (University of Virginia Press 2016), Trethewey offers a moment of humor between the speaker and her father—and between the poet and the reader—to ease the tension in both circumstances and to provide space for reflection. Talking about Sally Hemings, the speaker (here clearly Trethewey) mentions a Monticello tourist’s asking

            How white was she?—parsing the fractions

                        as if to name what made her worthy

            of Jefferson’s attentions: a near-white,


            quadroon mistress, not a plain black slave.

                        Imagine stepping back into the past,

            our guide tells us then—and I can’t resist


            whispering to my father: This is where

                        we split up. I’ll head around to the back.

            When he laughs, I know he’s grateful


            I’ve made a joke of it, this history

                        that links us—white father, black daughter—

            even as it renders us other to each other.

I think we all read Thrall with a sense of gratitude for Trethewey’s generosity. Yes, she “renders us other to each other,” but she does so in language and tone that make the necessary conversations possible and even bearable. — Philip Belcher


Intricate and intimate, tough and touching, Michael Longley’s poems are often small in girth (sometimes two on a page), but deeper than holy wells.  In his new collection, published in the U.S. by Wake Forest, the title refers to both the town where his painter daughter lives and the cemetery outside the town, but the poems often reside in the cup of an iris, the dung of resident swallows or the flocking pattern of “heavenly riffraff” starlings.  Long a poet known for his elegiac timbre, Longley is, as he watches the world unfold its secrets, making a casualty count (of people, places, customs, words) but also a life list.

He is also a poet of love – wife, daughter, children, grandchildren, the natural world, the kindness of old friends – unembarrassed, seldom ironic, always cutting to the quick.  Those familiar with his work will find old touchstones in Angel Hill, will zoom in on poems like “The Brooch,” which lifts a sherd from The Odyssey and holds it up to the light.  Longley has been rewriting Homer’s work for years, emphasizing its currency and its durability.  Because he is a poet of peace, he is drawn back again and again to the battle and journey epics, as well as the killing fields of WWI and the violence of The Troubles.  High on my list of most valuable poems in English is his earlier “Ceasefire,” a heart-shaking account of Priam’s visit to Achilles’ tent (“’I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss the hand of Achilles, the killer of my son.’”).  A poem about mercy and empathy in the ancient world, it is also a plea for forgiveness and concord in times of civil strife, Irish and otherwise.

But today we have the naming of the parts of the new book, as Henry Reed might have said it.  Snowdrop, feather and thistle are his subject, as well as the coffins of dead children, family outings, “otter-encounters,” his old friend Heaney, a gallery holding forty portraits of the love of one artist’s life, genitals, horses, marriage.

Here is one of his marvelous (some would say “occasional”) four-liners:


Long ago I compared us to rope-makers

Twisting straw into a golden cable.

Here is a necklace marking fifty years.

The straw rope has turned into real gold.

The fabulous and real mate, much of the poem’s force drive by the twice accurate “twisting.”  Longley is a trustworthy, sometimes wry poet who seldom aims his ironies at the reader.  And when his poems are earnest and literal, there’s always some frisson making them more than they might seem to a passerby.  He can manage terse and tender at once, and I’d say a good half of the poems in the volume are worth reading over and over, none of the others worth skipping over.  That’s a notable achievement.  Here’s one to take on the next walk:


There are seven of them

Falling short of a trill –

Just – seven quick notes

From the long-beaked whimbrel

Night-flying overhead,

Whistling down the chimney

At nobody’s address.

I feel like he’s whispering to Dickinson and me at once, a rare feat for a poem.  The work in Angel Hill whispers, weeps, sings. and catalogues the flora of his haunts with precision and lyrical resonance.  The volume will fit in many places, including jacket pockets, and even when Longley revisits the terrors of the past, he’s a calming voice in these troubled times.RTS



I’m often uncertain where “crime novel,” “mystery novel” and “detective novel” intersect, or don’t, but two series that I can’t stop following are James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux novels and Walter Mosley’s “Easy Rawlings Mystery” (as the book jacket calls the newest installment). 

In Charcoal Joe, Mosley follows Easy, the most persuasively rendered black investigator I’ve encountered so far, through the complications of race, crime, love, guilt, friendship and general ambience (supplied by clothing, furniture, architecture, vehicles, language and music) in late Sixties Los Angeles.  I’ve read seven of the baker’s dozen that comprise the set so far, and my favorites are Devil in a Blue Dress and Rose Gold.  Charcoal Joe trails pretty far behind.

Why is that?  The alternately cautious and reckless Easy (for Ezekiel) is at the heart of the action, and he’s softened by his daughter Feather, steeled by his ruthless tough “brother” Mouse and his more laid back enforcer Fearless.  The women come and go, always engagingly described, sometimes intimately (though never lubriciously, exhaustingly or with a leer).  The city is alive with jazz, gunplay, knifology and twisted private histories.  Easy is neither too wise with the cracks nor doltish.  He’s witty, but not too much, and he’s often mistaken, a fallible man always approaching an important personal crossroad.  He is a little like Dave Robichaux, though where Burke is prone to wax eloquent and poetic, Moseley prefers the understated and withheld, a noir gumshoe with a heart. 

So what’s amiss with Charcoal Joe?  My answers are simple.  First, overpopulated with characters who are little more than their names and shoes (or suits or cars), they don’t offer much in the way of the human panorama.  Second – and I know it’s not restricted to this book – Moseley has trouble resisting the cute, often in his names – a gambler names Gambol, for instance.  The plot, generally neat in nearly unbelievable ways (as with many members of the genre) has some loose ends; Easy even acknowledges one near the close of the story, “I never found out how Irena ended up Stapleton’s prisoner.”  Time sequence gets blurred, along with cause and effect.  And, okay, maybe too many Easy women in this one.

But I’ll read the next one.  Easy Rollins’s mix of intensity and nonchalance is appealing, the rogues galleries in each volume are quirky and engaging, the red herrings are artfully dragged across the path, and Mosley is a master of the terse epithet, the understatement, the viable twist of circumstance.  He’s not quite Elmore Leonard, not as extravagant or visceral, but close enough, and he manages the complexities of race and background with the precision of a man on whom nothing is lost, which Henry James says is the real test. –  RTS



I confess that one of my motives for reading Ron Rash’s collection Nothing Gold Can Stay (HarperCollins) is that I ran across a large print edition (courtesy of Thorndike Press), which improves most reading experiences for me.  Not that Rash needs the boost.  I have taught several of his stories and the novel One Foot in Eden twice, and I’ve read all of his work that has been collected in book form.  In fact, I’d already read nine of the fourteen stories in NGCS in journals.  Rash has written some terrific stories about Appalachian people, their beautiful but dangerous territory, their courage, follies, hungers, hurdles and history.  Recommending this book, I’d like to focus on the stories which will surely last.

“The Trusty” and “Where the Map Ends” share subject matter.  Both are about escape and betrayal.  Both reveal, in efficient but evocative language, protagonists is desperate straits, strangers in a strange land not as comfortable in the highland wilds and culture as their creator.  In the first, a shifty road gang trusty named Sinkler is assigned the task of finding a well and fetching water for his fellow inmates.  Luckier than Cool Hand Luke, it would seem, he meets a young farm wife who, like many of Rash’s Appalachians, appears desperate to escape her hardscrabble existence.  In dialogue that is swift and convincing (driven by the prisoner’s “saucy” talk), Sinkler draws Lucy into a plan to benefit them both, and Lucy seems just gullible enough to act as guide and paramour.  Needless to say, the story is filled with Sinkler’s speculations and schemes.  It involves a shortcut over the mountains to the Asheville train station, but on the trek the reader begins to hear a change in Lucy’s speech before Sinkler does and begins to suspect a few kinks not in the original plan out amid the rhododendrons, creeks and ridges.  Doublecrosses ensue, things fall apart and reform, motives rise and fall.  One of the longest stories in the book, this is one of Rash’s gems, and it features a sly method that is one of Rash’s trademarks, the climax insinuated and shown through understatement and double entendre.  Rash is one of the rare writers who can return to this method without seeming mannered, though on a couple of occasions I’ve found it coy.

In “Where the Map Ends” two runaways looking for an Underground Railway station as they journey toward Federals in Tennessee, find one that’s almost out of the Twilight Zone.  Though the flintlock-toting farmer/ “conductor” is willing to offer provender and directions, the quality of his mercy is strained,  The power of the story is generated by two facets: the quietly expressed affection between Viticus and the boy who travels with him, and the bitter and ominous solicitude of their host.  In an ending which has been whispering its secret through half of the narrative, the reader is nearly shocked to understand what the farmer requires and Viticus is willing to give.  It’s a lyrical but nourish conclusion to a story that takes 15-20 minutes to read and, likely, years to forget.

Sometimes Rash’s social conscience appears to drive him toward topographical and topical compulsories – the highland drug epidemic, sudden violence, conflicting loyalties, poverty (and the drinking and the fishing) – but these result in part from having a querencia, a real place of origin and concern.  They don’t always result in the freshest stories and can feel like a sermon or tangle of parable and realism, but Rash seldom completely gives way to the siren song of sentimentality and nostalgia that for so long struck the flat notes in Appalachian literature.  “A Servant of History,” for instance, recounts the misadventures of a Scotsman come to the hills to capture folk ballads.  The comic misunderstandings don’t soar, especially when they result from mispronunciation. [“I go by Rafe,” says a man giving his name, but Rash’s protagonist hears it as, “I a go ba Rafe,” and renders it as, “Iago Barafe.”]  A genuine Sut Lovingood imitation might be humorous, but Rash wants too many different notes from the three strings of this instrument.

Hippies and military families come and go, a barn burns, a casino loses, girl’s vanish but is somehow “at peace” and won’t wholly disappear, but I like Rash best when he operates as an inspired observer/reporter or a folkloric mesmerizer.  When he puts on his historical glasses, as in the post-Civil War tale “The Dowry,” he renders the passions and extremes that still run in mountain blood when pride was not so conflicted nor unrelenting.  The daughter of a one-armed Confederate vet and a former Federal wish to marry, but her father’s bitterness is unassuagable.  Well, you can guess what happens . . . no, you can’t, not until you begin to feel a specific premonitory chill.  Rash seems to be very much in his element here.

In the more contemporary “Night Hawks,” Rash displays his sensitivity to nuance and less Jacobean love complications. In a small town not necessarily Appalachian, Ginny feels guilty about an accident that befalls one of her students during a storm, and she mutilates herself, though the story stays away from her inevitable ruminations on this chain of events.  Recuperated, she sheds her boyfriend Andrew and her job, then takes up the night shift at a local radio station, claiming as her moniker “The Night Hawk.”  It’s a delicate story about her frayed sensibility, resistance to renewed contact with Andrew and concern for all the wounded listeners in the audience.  I took it as a meditation on the painting, as well – is Hopper showing us solitude, loneliness, privacy or a kind of extremely cautious and subtle communion.  It’s a lovely story, and the ending should serve as a strong recommendation to anyone considering reading Ron Rash:

“She would say, ‘This is the Night Hawk,’ and play ‘After Midnight.’”  Ginny would speak to people in bedrooms, to clerks drenched in the fluorescent light of convenience stores, to millworkers driving back roads home after graveyard shifts.  She would speak to the drunk and sober, the godly and godless.  All the while high above where she sat, the station’s red beacon would pulse like a heart, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark adrift and lone.”

Who can’t imagine seeing that beacon beckon?RTS



 “They have prisons,” says teacher Margaret Mann in Judith Farr’s I Never Came to You in White (1996), “for such women as Emily Dickinson.”  Perhaps Emily would have understood, as she wrote that those with “madness . . . divinest sense” are “handled with a chain.”  Certainly the version of the famous poet proposed in Farr’s epistolary novel would not herself have been surprised by the extremity of Mann’s opinion, and the grammar teacher’s antipathy toward the budding poet is one of the currents rushing through the book.  And yet, intriguing and provocative as the story is, it prosecutes its agenda more ponderously and less persuasively than most readers would desire or need.

However, Farr is shrewd and meticulous, has done plenty of research on her ensemble of correspondents, especially the pupil whom the wanna-be poet, grammarian and nemesis Mann considered gifted but twisted (and whom she envied with rancor).   The book is built around letters, most sent in 1848 and 1892, and the most lengthy written conversation is between a Margaret Mann determined to vilify the “witch” Dickinson and Col./Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who came to admire and promote the Amherst “belle” in his later years, though he bears some responsibility for the tardiness of the poems’ public appearance and some distortions of the poet’s admittedly contestable intent.  One of the problems with the novel is that Miss Mann quickly becomes the villain, spying, scorning, punishing and lying about the sensitive poet.  Pharr accomplishes this by showing us Mann’s letters describing, for instance, a cake theft episode at Miss Mary Lyons’  Mt. Holyoke Seminary, and a late-night rendezvous between the fledgling poet and her sometime friend Susan Gilbert.  Both the historical letters of Dickinson and the invented ones in the book confirm that these events transpired, but Emily’s role in neither is as dramatic or transgressive as Mann testifies to Higginson, after Emily’s death.  Rumors of Dickinson’s as deplorable – guilty of lust, theft, hubris and more – get the full-blown exaggeration treatment from a bitter and hypocritical teacher.

The other exchanges of mail that constitute the narrative are between Emily and Susan Gilbert (who would later marry Austin Dickinson), Emily and her withdrawing companion Abiah Root, Emily and “a Mysterious Person” (who becomes “Master” in the final letter), cousin Emily Norcross and various friends, Emily and “Herself” (these are poems as letters), Lyons and Mann.  I don’t want to oversimplify; sometimes Austin corresponds, once sister Lavinia does, once Austin’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd (in 1892, when most of the principals are deceased but the fray over publication and rights over D’s poems still simmers) to her daughter Millicent.  There’s plenty of self-righteousness and errant judgement going around.

These scrambled missives create an admirable prism of gossip, malice and affection that’s a little reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, though Pharr has not succeeded so fully as Faulkner did (and who could?) in making distinct voices for each character.  It’s still not an achievement to be dismissed.  One impediment to the success of the method is the creation, wholly invented, of two threads of hush-hush communication.  To address the existence of the one extant photograph of Dickinson, Pharr has invented a daguerreotypist who comes to Mount Holyoke to capture images of the girls and writes one of his paramours, Margery, about a precocious student who “slipped into the room like a swallow in a windstorm” and spoke with depth and eloquence about her unorthodox views.  While he’s reporting to his “wild nights” companion and musing whether or not the girl “could be merely mad rather than a Genius,” I was wondering how a seminary girl would have been allowed to be alone with this young male artiste at night, especially given all the surveillance going on.  It’s an intriguing scene, but in its current form and context somewhat untenable.

The other questionable letter is about Emily and from Ms. Lyons to a former friend/lover, a Eustacia Temple, for whom Lyons still carries a torch.  It records parallels between Emily’s “ardor unabashed” for another young woman (Sue) and the affair between Eustacia and Miss Mary, the abandoned and broken-hearted partner.  I’m not certain if the explicit Sapphics are to convince readers that Emily was a lesbian (like her school’s mistress) or that affection between young women verges on the sexual or that the threshold between the Platonic and the sexual is misty territory.  Or something else.   My point is that there’s an artificially neat parallelism here that suggests an argument is being made, rather than a narrative being discovered and explored.

There’s no shortage of narrative threads running through the actual correspondence among the historical characters who populate the novel, but compression, amplification, omission, juxtaposition and detailed invention conjured here convey a sense of the secrecy and exhibition which melded as “innocents” tried to understand themselves and others in that strange atmosphere created by Emily Dickinson’s presence, silence, speech, actions and those little slips of paper on which she wrote down words, an art a handful of the “litigants” claim they could, or did, perform better themselves.  If any on the shards of this human puzzle should have been restrained or “locked up,” Emily Dickinson is not the most likely candidate.  After all, looking back, who imagines she could have been controlled?  And she didn’t even have magic bracelets to bang together.

[Why review, especially briefly and ambiguously, a book this old?  I saw a lock of Dickinson’s hair given to a friend, who preserved it.  I’d always assumed her hair was reddish, auburn, but it’s vibrant and impressive, the sort of wreath that will not easily release the Dickinson-afflicted.] RTS








Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett is a little past his prime.  In Vicious Circle, the seventeenth novel in C. J. Box’s series, Joe is cowed by a burley rodeo star, assaulted by a wheelchaired quadriplegic and skeptical of his own marksmanship, though the author surely knows that even a critter constable has to maintain certain standards on the firing range.  Joe’s attention is also distracted by the fact that he has a smart wife and three daughters to negotiate with and is caught in a feud due to his evidently sharper shooting skills in an earlier novel.

G.W. Pickett is humanized by his failings, but his pity for the villains, including the venomous Dallas Cates, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  I grew up around cops, and I’m not familiar with those who can’t sustain rage at any lowlife who messes with their family, especially a wayward and vulnerable daughter.  This, by the way, is no spoiler, as April Pickett’s fling with bronco boy Dallas is over before the novel begins.

No doubt many readers of westerns will compare Pickett to Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire (both from Craig Johnson’s novels and the Netflix series) of that same state.  While Walt is a creature of the woods and mountains, a big-fisted iconoclast with a complex Viet Nam past (and other pasts), Joe seems devoted to job and family, but both authors have created rule-breakers with strong “coply intuition,” as Jesse Stone would have put it.  Walt is just more violent and lives in a more violent zone with big-time villains and the complications of the local Rez to stir the brew.  And he’s not a game warden.  Perhaps it’s not fair to pursue the comparison much further.  After all, Pickett’s first name is Joe, and Longmire’s is Sheriff.

But there’s more to my yoking them together than just the personalities and situations of the protagonists.  On the matters of character nuance, plot management and sheer writing force and deftness, Johnson has the advantage.  His ambitions and philosophies are more complex and his novels sturdy beyond genre expectations.  But comparisons, said Cervantes (who wrote the best-selling novel of all time, I’m told) are odious, so let me get back to the vicious circle of vendetta and enmity that drive Box’s novel and the virtues and flaws of what is still a pretty good read, especially for a sixteenth sequel.

One of Box’s assets is his aversion to dense cop jabber, a choice reinforced in his (usual) disdain for forensic and arsenal information.  Occasionally he will experience a moment of weaponry buzz in which we find out more about caliber and magazine size than we need, but that’s rare, as he’d rather focus on revealing the dynamics of his family and Twelve Sleep County, the foolish thinking and speech of the obligatory thugs and his relationships with his dogs and horses, who are more interesting than the novel’s hardware.

The plot of Vicious Circle is pretty simple: Dallas wants to avenge dead brothers and a damaged and incarcerated mother, all dispatched by Joe in the line of duty, probably in an earlier installment.  Joe wants to apprehend Dallas and herd him back into the penal system for what he’s done and what he’s planning.  The story escalates as Dallas and his henchmen eliminate bystanders they mistake for witnesses to their plotting and show evil intent towards Joe’s clan.  It all complicates as the brash-and-flashy attorney hired to defend Dallas on one charge arrives with his brassy and manipulative wife, who happens to be Joe’s mother-in-law.  The family orchestration gets almost unwieldy at times, but not quite, and the dialogue among game warden, librarian/wife/computer whiz and two of the daughters stays lively and credible while helping the novel become something more than another dust-em-or-cuff-em yarn.  I’m also impressed by the ways that Box incorporates wildlife issues and the sense of rugged landscape into the story.  Makes you want to be there and want not to.

For those interested in the compulsories, Pickett must deal with a dirty cop, more than one damsel in distress, a cranky judge, a tippling prosecutor and alarming threats to his own loved ones.  He has a sort of dark ops associate (peregrine-snaring Nate Romanowski) from times past whose appearance seems forced into the story and who exhibits here neither the charm nor the depth of Dave Robicheaux’s sidekick Clete in James Lee Burke’s novels or Longmire’s Cheyenne conscience and fellow Nam veteran, the mischievous and sometimes mystical Henry Standing Bear.

The opening scene is wonderfully presented: a Cessna with heat sensor equipment searches the rough mountains for an engaging but perhaps disoriented minor character named Farkus until he’s located where less civic searchers are also closing in.  In fact, the action scenes make me wish for more, while the courtroom scenes are too stale and too long.  A few coincidences of time and place interfere with the pursuits which occupy much of the volume, but Joe remains a likeable and believable conservationist with a pistol.

Still, I find myself swinging back to that odious comparison.  Box’s novel is entertaining but not absorbing, certainly a much quicker adventure than any of the five Longmire books I’ve read, but the 17th in a series is not usually going to be the best, so I’d try Joe at least once more before abandoning him.  The real crux may be that Box seems more interested in exploring how a man goes bad, then goes real bad; Johnson is interested in such things as well, but perhaps also in a wider range of western culture.  And all the Longmire books I know excavate personalities and confront mysterious and palpable evil more directly than Box.  In any case, Wyoming is full of miscreants and accidents.  I have a friend who’s headed out there for a spell, and I feel moved to remind her of the resonant recommendation from Goat Woman to Inman in Cold Mountain: Watch yourself.

(I nearly forgot to mention that Vicious Circle features frequent appearances by an inked-up and crazed methhead with an axe to grind . .  . and wield.  Even Joe would be well advised to spend more quality time on the tactical range.) RTS

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.