‘There is no great payoff’ – Witness by Curtis Smith

Witness is a collection of essays, many of which were originally published in literary magazines. Curtis Smith muses on birth, death, fatherhood, Halloween and getting a tattoo as well as on the weightier topics of war and press freedom. Most of the essays are written in relation to his young son and the way he discovers the world around him.

The essays contain some beautifully observed passages. In ‘Pysch 101, Revisited’ Smith describes picking up his son from kindergarten:

“The waiting parents made small talk in a hallway whose walls were divided into distinct eye-level layers – the children’s world of bright colors and clumsy crafts below, and above, reminders to the adults, sign-up sheets for classroom projects, requests for field trip chaperones, the bake sale and silent auction fundraisers.”

In ‘The Agnostic’s Prayer’ he is in the garden on a late summer’s evening:

“I tip the plastic lawn chair and the seat’s puddle hits the grass in a pitter-patter waterfall.”

But for all these lovely images, not a lot happens. In ‘The Agnostic’s Prayer’ Smith writes about an evening when he looks after his son while his wife is away. His son wakes up in the middle of the night and Smith walks around the house with him trying to get him to fall asleep. That’s it.

Much of ‘A Rusty Chain’ describes his son playing with the chain between a gap in a fence they pass on a walk in the woods. Perhaps a parent would find this and the musings that accompanied it fascinating but I was left feeling short-changed.

In ‘On a Free Press in Wartime’ Smith seems to acknowledge the limit of his writing. After describing how he used to play with his father’s gun when he was a boy, he writes:

“As a storytelling element, this introduction is horribly flawed – there is no great payoff, no cautionary tale of woe, not even a humorous antidote.”

‘Two Women from West Virginia’ is more interesting. It deals with the media’s presentation of the very different experiences of soldiers Lynndie England and Jessica Lynch in Iraq. England was the woman photographed alongside tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Lynch was the 19-year-old who was captured by Iraqis and rescued by US commandos. Smith writes about the public’s reaction to the photos and the video of Lynch’s rescue, how this reaction was manipulated and how it was convenient for people to forget when the truth about these fabrications came out.

Smith’s prose also works well in ‘A Knife to the Heart’. Writing about one of his former students who has been murdered he poignantly captures the poverty and the sense of helplessness of the community.

The ‘Witness’ of the title is the final essay – a sparsely written account of his father’s drawn out death. This is written in the present tense which somehow took the emotion out of it. The other essays can also be said to bear witness but overall I found them rather self-indulgent.

Any Cop?: Some beautifully written bits but I don’t think these essays really needed another incarnation beyond the original magazines.

Anna Foden

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