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Recommendation: R.T. Smith’s Brightwood

Brightwood explores author R.T. Smith’s experiences growing up and living in the American South through a collection of vivid and lyrical poems.  The poems present a wide range of subject matter that Smith has encountered throughout this life that all share haunting-like features, wrapped in a subtle or obvious conflict and searching for resolution.  Incorporating rich diction and sound, the poems appear to have a rhythm of their own even though there is no formal rhyme scheme.  Whether the poems address personal relationships, racial injustices, or challenges to the traditional social flavor of the South, Smith paints a colorful variety of scenes and characters in his poem collection that presents a warped world tinted with a bit of hope. 


The first poem in the collection, “Brightwood,” describes the crafting of a fiddle, and ultimately sets the tone for the rest of the collection.  The last four lines state:


“If a fiddle’s fashioned with such ardor,

it can stir the world’s first spark,

drawn the way healing always is—

from the stridor of the dark.” (18-21)


These lines suggest how the music and craft of a single instrument mimic the struggle to heal or come to terms with life events.  The poem opens through a description of how the fiddle is carefully constructed with “candor” (5) and “patience” (7), two qualities that allow for an open and accepting perspective.  The instrument itself is reflects beautiful craftsmanship—it has “cambered light” (6) and “[a] good cut” (10) and has its own soul tuned to the wind so that “it comes alive” (17).  This beautiful fiddle, in appearance and virtue, acts as forum for reflection and acceptance for Smith so that he can come to terms with the events in his life.  Its function is to heal anxieties, fears and frustrations as it is “drawn the way healing always is” (20).  Through tribulations, the fiddle plays from the “stridor of the dark” (21), insinuating a sort of haunting or disturbed melody, yet almost comforting as it continues to play in the midst of the “dark” (20) or a troubled or uncertain time. 


One of the poems that I think is particularly interesting is “In the Night Orchard” that discusses the drive of curiosity and indulgence through the scenes of deer seeking pears in farmers’ orchards even at the risk of getting tangled in the branches.  Smith describes this instinctive drive in lines 27-35:


“…We all remember what it’s like,

this driven season, this delirium

for something not yet given a name,

but the world turns us practical, tames


us to yearn for milder pleasures.

For Augustine, it was actual pears

that brought him out of the shadows

and over a wall, for Eve, the secret

inside what we now say was an apple.” (27-35)


Smith suggests that “[w]e all” (27) are like the deer who may become fixated upon the mysterious or forbidden that we are supposed to avoid, like the farmers’ pears to the deer, yet we pursue these items of interest anyway—as it is an instinctive part of our natures for the better of ourselves or for the worse.


I highly recommend Smith’s Brightwood for an insightful and captivating read that touches on the anxieties of human nature in the setting of the South.



– Ellen Ferrante