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Outlaw Style

By: R. T. Smith
Reviewed by: Mark Dawson
University of Arkansas Press, 2007
$16, Paperback

Some poets are prolific and productive, while some are merely prolific. R. T. Smith is decidedly the former. Outlaw Style is his fourth full-length book of poems in six years (and from four different, very respected presses). It is, perhaps, his most ambitious and impressive book since Trespasser (1996). He explores a number of stanzaic forms, including the dramatic monologue, and occasionally uses rhyme, never lapsing into flatness.

Not all of the speakers or subjects are “outlaws.” In fact, “style” may be the more important of the two words in the title. Instead of adjective-subject, one could almost read the title as verb-subject—as if these speakers were defying a mythical edict against individual style.

Faith, spirituality, nature—Smith’s career-long subjects are all here. The first of three sections, “Outsider Art,” includes “Dar He,” a first-person poem by a policeman’s son recalling the trial (or mis-trial) of the murderers of Emmett Till. Smith wisely avoids an epuffany—the typical, false-note, ending epiphany of many a contemporary poem— instead leaving the speaker (and the reader) haunted. His mastery is also evident in “Wilson’s Ivory-Bill.” I find this third-person poem as charged as the monologues; Smith conveys the drama and horror of naturalist Alexander Wilson’s capture and study of a bird in 1808, while at the same time portraying, in Wilson’s thoughts, the lack of a fully-developed, public concern for animal rights so familiar in our own time. This poem is a tutorial for any poets who want to incorporate historical journal quotes into their own poems.

The middle section is comprised mostly of first-person poems, conveying the effect of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln. This is a very impressive recounting of the historical details of Booth’s life. More importantly, this is done as true poetry—the poems evoke the man, and he comes across as an American Lucifer, a person of great talent, deluded by his plans for revolution, and a sower of far-flung destruction and misery.

The third and final section of ten poems is unified by the theme of music, especially the blues. The two sections demonstrate the fact that any topic is the purview of poets devoted to their craft and willing to do the work to write on matters other than self-reflection.

Books like this make one wish poetry were even more widely read in the U.S. It is a marvelous book by one of our best living poets, and even non-readers of poetry should make an exception in this case.

Mark Dawson has a chapbook of poems forthcoming from Aralia Press. 

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