Outlaw Style is a collection of narrative and lyric poems, many of them in the tradition of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. While gothic imagery, humor, and nineteenth-century diction and reference alternate and interweave, the four thematic currents that converge in the collection are music, race, spirituality, and the impact of monstrosity on somewhat innocent bystanders.
Poems like “Dar He,” “Scuppernongs,” and “Plantation of the Mad” address the history of American racial intolerance with muted horror, while the final series of poems explores the roots and impact of traditional music, from unsettling songs of the Carter Family through Delta Blues and the haunting ballad “Strange Fruit.” The collection also features poems, such as “Shepherd Ollie Strawbridge on the Chicken Business,” which question the nature of spirituality; and the central section, “The Booth Prism,” performs a kind of séance in which the author channels the voices of many of the people—from Anna Surratt Tonry to Booth’s lovers and siblings—whose lives were altered by contact with Lincoln’s assassin.
Throughout Outlaw Style formal and vernacular rhythms stand in counterpoint, images of violence excavate a stark and troubling beauty, and history and mystery fuse and feud, as the landscape and culture of the American South are presented for interrogation and understanding.
“An elegant music undergirds the poems in R. T. Smith’s haunting new collection, Outlaw Style. These are poems that seek and find the ‘blood harmony’ in the mongrel that is history. They plumb the depths of those kindred motivators in the pursuit of beauty—madness and passion, mystery and genius—to grapple with the legacies of history, both public and private. If it is true, as Smith reminds us quoting Plato, that ‘A man’s mask is apt to become his face,’ that danger, here, is a risk worth Smith’s undertaking. In this brave book, he is a poet enthralled to history and music, taking on the competing narratives of our American past, those many versions that, when acknowledged, get us closest to truth. I will save myself if I can he writes in ‘Strange Fruit, 1939,’ a poem whose words are uttered as if to redeem us all”
—Natasha Trethewey, author of Native Guard, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize
“Outlaw Style is the finest, most powerful book of R. T. Smith’s mighty career. It bristles with candor and violence and makes the kind of music that only comes from a rare mix of craft and abandon. This book reminds me why southern poetry matters—it is a shining chunk of the American soul. If you want a masterpiece, here is one.”
—Steve Scafidi, author of Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer
“Rod Smith’s new book makes even the grimmest, quasi-Manichean spirits—like his fellow Georgian, Flannery O’Connor—want to get happy and testify to the workings of the Holy Spirit; and, simultaneously, to bargain with the Devil for the ability to grab a guitar’s neck and confess ‘the enduring thirst for melody.’ Smith delves deeply into the traditions of Southern music, as well as the story of John Wilkes Booth and outsider artists. He arrives at a place beyond wisdom, his high notes resounding with humility, confidence, and sprezzatura. ‘O play that thing!’ is probably a more fitting accolade than ‘bravo,’ and Outlaw Style makes us crave an encore. Then another.”
—Diann Blakely, author of Farewell, My Lovelies