February 2007

Elizabeth Cornell


This marks an author's first online publication Elizabeth Cornell is a fiction editor for The Cortland Review. She is currently pursuing a PhD in English at Fordham University.

Uke Rivers Delivers: Stories
by R.T. Smith
142 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 2006

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The myriad characters who populate the cosmos of R. T. Smith's second book of short stories, Uke Rivers Delivers, range from a ukelele-playing dwarf, to a grandmother whose singing makes the church hymnals too hot to hold, to one of Jeff Davis's cross-dressing compadres. Smith, the editor of Shenandoah for Washington and Lee University, is also known for his poetry. Two books of his poems, Trespasser (1996) and Hunter Gatherer (1996) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

In a 1998 interview with The Cortland Review, Smith explains that "a fiddle break or sax riff" sometimes provide him with inspiration; those breaks and riffs abound in this book. His words frequently want to burst into song, but he wisely modulates them, letting them slowly crescendo into a full-blown jamboree. When Granny Annie sings in "Tube Rose," her grandson is terrified:

The mosquito at my ear dropped dead on the puncheon. The yard willow began to sway like warning of a mighty storm. Soon the rim of the sky began to glow yellow like there was a distant battle, and the corn, well, its tassels all sizzled and gave off smoke. I could hear muscadines popping in the arbor, as the weathercock spun and the rusty old screen four feet from my face commenced to glow violet and tremble. The peanut can on the hassock tumped over, spilled its Styx River onto the floor, then rolled toward the trapdoor to the root cellar, and her voice grown into a ripping howl.

The fifteen stories of this book all take place in small towns of Georgia and Virginia, where God is often just a lightening bolt away and unseen forces work within and without the characters. Even though most of the stories seem to be set somewhere in the nineteen-forties, -fifties or -sixties, for many of these characters, the Confederate flag still means something and the War Between the States may as well have ended yesterday. A major theme in many of these stories is about finding a way home so as to escape the unwanted chaos that fate has heaved in the way. A Confederate deserter in "I Have Lost My Right," a refreshing take on a war story, seems to speak for many of the characters in this book when he explains his reason for desertion, "I wanted to go home and start over, live inside my dream of a regular farm life—sow and gather and grow old."

One of the impressive qualities of Smith's talent is the sheer number of different voices he's imagined that give life to these stories, which take the form of monologues. Smith offers up barely adolescent boys, frightened soldiers, old ladies, a bitter and murderous Native American, cuckolded husbands, and more. Perhaps one of my favorite voices belongs to Uke, a dwarf who narrates the story that shares the book's title. Uke explains that he came "out of the oven fully-haired and rusty-looking, yodeling and not more-sized than a bun," and supposes an Indian spirit cursed his mother and caused him to be born that way. Uke's voice feels nearly pitch-perfect as he tells us about his life of successes and sorrows. Early in life, Uke is a bit of an outcast and must draw from his own reservoir of self-preservation to rise above the ostracization from his neighbors and his abusive father. Music—in the form of a ukelele—is Uke's real home. It saves him from total rejection and helps him through sad times, but not entirely. One of the book's most moving passages comes from his realization of that at his first wife's funeral:

I was planning to plonk and sing 'Amazing Grace,' but when I saw the clouds brewing, I played 'Raindrops Keep Falling' in a dark way nobody had ever heard before, and the sky broke and downpoured till they had to carry me back to the undertaker's truck. You see, I thought something in my music could reach out into the other place and call her back, but it turned out not so.

After that, Uke becomes a famous ukelele player, noted for his "sassy tone" and a voice that is "world-wearied" with the "taint of the Indian, a hint of the snake." When he encounters love and loss again in the form of a cheating wife, Uke confronts the situation but ends up committing a rather grotesque crime and loses his music entirely. Very often Smith's characters must pay a high price—an arm, imprisonment, or even death—in exchange for escape from chaos.

It is chaos and confusion that Smith's characters constantly resist; most do whatever they can to get rid of the problem and return to a placid existence. In "Jesus Wept," which won a Pushcart Prize, an alcoholic father and itinerant preacher practices his sermons in an outhouse, now called the Light House because it was once struck by lightning. Daddy John Crow Epps's scarcely adolescent sons, Dock and Jester, run the family flower farm while he proselytizes around the country. He calls his sons heathens for craving fried chicken after endless nights of boiled okra. Once their mother takes off with a traveling salesman and Daddy brings home Pandy Cleave, "a sulky gal from Macon," the boys begin to feel the weight of too much turmoil in their lives. They're disgusted by Pandy who "sulls around the house and is no use, paints her nails and writes silly songs, and after supper it's jibber-jabber, jibber-jabber, jibber. He-dove and she-dove, coo and coo." With all that yucky adult stuff going on, not to mention that their father drinks away the farm profits, makes them get up with the roosters and recite from the Bible, that Pandy touches Jester "on the gizmo" and then takes off after stealing all farm's cash, who can blame the boys for climbing up onto the roof of their house and driving their father—who's turned into a raving maniac at this news about Pandy—off the farm? When their spirit-filled Daddy is gone, Jester wants fried chicken. "Pagans like us, you know," observes Dock. "Jesus wept. I lock my eyes on a fox-colored hen, and we climb on down."

Smith may be at his lyrical best with "Dear Six Belles," a toe-tapping love letter from a (obsessed) music fan to six female Cajun singers. "'Is you is or is you ain't my baby?' The way you six can rasp that out puts all the human pain du monde in syrupy words. It's jubilee sorrow you raise with your sweet beat and squeezebox chords. Experience is what I'm saying, chères, drinking life straight in a full-gullet world-thirsty swig." He pleads with them not to sell out to stardom and to keep their roots in sight. While Smith's lyricism is spot on in this story, he occasionally loses control of it, as in "Trousseau," the story about Jefferson Davis's cross-dressing aides. For example: "I can still remember gazing up at him, backlit in the angled evening light, his spurs and buckles like pirate treasure, his worsted trousers clean as a preacher's, waxed mustache like a Shawnee bow ... his brass buttons like small suns." And, "Deep eyes like a doe, a taste for ant-tiny whips of lace, a voice like wing cooled honey . . . and yet the heart of a panther." By the time I finished reading this indulgent prose, I craved something less gussied up.

"Docent," another piece with a strong voice, did not resonate with me at first. Miss Sybil Mildred Clemm Legrand Pascal takes the reader on a tour of the Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University. "I will be your guide and compass," Miss Sibby announces,

on this somewhat dull, dark and soundless day, as the poet says, in the autumn of the year. . .and in case you are wondering about my hooped dress of ebony, my weblike hairnet and calf-leather shoes, they are authentic to the period just following the War Between the States, and I will be happy to discuss the cut and fabric of my mourning clothing with any of you fashion-conscious ladies at the end of the tour, which by the way will be concluded in the passageway between the crypt and the museum proper.

 Miss Sibby's tone seemed too much of a caricature to my Yankee ear until I inserted the gravelly voice of my 105 year-old aunt from Alabama, whose grandfather fought in the Civil War. However, my aunt, unlike Miss Sibby, would never reveal that General Lee stepped "out to the garden to relieve himself in the starlight." But she would surely mention, as Miss Sibby also does, that Lee looked for ghosts and that a statue of the General reminds her of Disney's Snow White: "Since first I saw the princess in her trance, I have thought of the General as someone under an enchantment," sighs Miss Sibby, "awaiting the right deliverer, but perhaps it is the trumpet of the Second Coming for which he awaits."

Smith's stories in general are delightful. The myriad voices in this collection reflect an author fascinated by all different kinds of characters. Each story brings to the reader a new voice and a way to approach life when it is interrupted by an unforeseen person or wild forces. Taken together, these characters and stories make up a choir singing their way from chaos to order, groundedness, and home.



Elizabeth Cornell: Poetry
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 34The Cortland Review