Review by Cate Hennessey
In her marvelous book, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, Patricia Hampl ponders some of Rilke’s advice from Letters to a Young Poet. She comes to rest on this:
[Rilke] was not a sentimentalist of childhood. He is directing the young poet, rather, to the old religions of commemoration in whose rituals the glory of consciousness presides. He believes, as I cannot help believing as well, in the communion of perception where experience does not fade to a deathly pale, but lives evergreen …
This ‘communion of perception’ characterizes Curtis Smith’s new collection of twenty-one essays, aptly titled Communion. And while the book’s cover bears three holy wafers, perception here is driven not by a devotion to God or church, but by an ordinary father’s love for his son.
In the book’s first and titular essay, Smith acknowledges while he attends his son’s first communion, “I should be following along, my voice lifted with the others, but I choose to study my son.” The rest of the pieces deliver on this study of the boy, from ages five through nine, and Smith develops family as the center of faith and doubt, the place where certainty and uncertainty collide and re-form into a deeply complicated and enduring love.
A father’s love drives the stylistic approach of Communion, too. Direct sentences often take and repeat a subject-verb construction, which at first may seem to detract from the grace that Smith infuses in his subject matter. However, the paragraphs come to build an elegant litany in which repetition becomes incantation, and incantation becomes a personal prayer of gratitude, wonder, and sorrow.
While many books have explored the relationship between parent and child, Communion offers an additional perspective in its essays’ cycle of learning, reflection, and struggle. Smith is a special education teacher, and his students’ often hardscrabble and marginalized lives offer an important and necessary contrast to the book’s precocious son. Smith recognizes it is a gift for him to have what he does, and as a result, his book becomes representative of those of us who have lived in a small town and worked a difficult job, struggled with faith and how to bring up a child in a church that one does not fully embrace, and seen the world as if for the first time through a child’s eyes.
But like Rilke, Smith is no sentimentalist when it comes to perception. His wonder for his son is always tinged with an awareness of change and mortality. At Communion’s center rest two darker essays, “Cold” and “The Dark Mirror.” They are two of the finest pieces in the collection, and their location underscores Smith’s awareness that moments of astonishment and happiness deserve praise because we are, at our core, always haunted by ourselves and others.
This is all the more complicated for Smith, who became a father in his forties and now, in his fifties, is acutely aware of the contrast between his weakening body and his son’s growing, strengthening limbs. Too, Smith’s past aggression, as well as his son’s interest in the Titanic, Pompeii, and ancient Rome – a history of loss and violence – develop Smith’s concern that “A man remembers scars better than kisses.” Despite this, the book works against scars in favor of moments of joy and comfort that are more poignant for the losses Smith knows are inevitable.
Communion is a reminder of what it is to try to be a good man and a good parent even while knowing that both are, on many levels, impossible – not least of which is because the memory of others, especially that of one’s children, may not perceive that goodness. Yet for this sad truth, I can’t remember the last time I finished a collection of essays and thought so much better of humans, especially parents, whose hearts ache and struggle in service of love for the next generation.
Cate Hennessey’s work has appeared in journals including The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review. She teaches at West Chester University.