With Different Eyes is a heart-stabbing book collaboration by the writer Paul Smart and the artist Richard Kroehling. The subtitle calls it “A Covid Waltz in Words & Images,” which doesn’t tell you much about this remarkable little volume. The pages are slightly wider than they are tall, and the narrative unfolds in very brief paragraphs, maybe four or five to a page, each one a prose poem with emotionally sharp edges, and every so often there’s a full-page painting, which is not an illustration but rather an evocative visual echo of the text.
In a sense, With Different Eyes is simply a memoir, a memoir about a man and his family during the COVID pandemic. Paul Smart, his wife Fawn and their son Milo, flew back from Italy where Smart, a roaming journalist, had been covering a fashion show. They landed at JFK and went from there to his home in Albany, New York. His son had been coughing throughout the trip and he vomited in school the next day. And the day after that, Smart himself collapsed.
But it’s a lot more than that. In With Different Eyes, a realist writer holds a mirror up to society to show us plainly what’s actually there; Smart holds a mirror up to himself, then smashes it, and from the shards has composed a tightly written prose poem. His paragraphs sometimes make fleeting narratives, sometimes they are memories from decades ago, sometimes they’re meditative explorations of self or family. “I try to stare mortality down,” Smart writes. We know who wins that contest.
Death is a theme in With Different Eyes, but this isn’t a morose or depressing work, and neither is it sentimental. Life delivers tragic or merely horrible incidents to each of us, and this work is true to life—that’s all and that’s plenty. Paul Smart explores briefly but pointedly his past—his father, who loved literature and mocked Paul’s ability as a writer; his mother, who sentimentalized her family. Both parents lived apart for decades and died shortly before the pandemic began. Paul’s brother died of a heroin overdose. Smart married late and his son is adopted.
The waltz, in the subtitle, comes from the Australian song “Waltzing Matilda,” written by the journalist Banjo Peterson. The lyrics to that jaunty tune have so much slang you may have wondered what the song was about. As Smart tells us, “waltzing meant hoofing it, a Matilda was a bedroll, and most workers were swagmen, rambling from job to job.” It’s no surprise that Smart, who has rambled from job to job in the world of print journalism, blogs, radio and beyond, thinks of himself as a swagman.
In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe wrote that “a near view of death would reconcile men of good principles one to another,” and that such a dose of death “would bring us to see with differing eyes than those which we looked on things before.” There’s a lot of death in With Different Eyes, but the title is true. The book is not only about death—it’s about seeing the world with different eyes. One of the most moving passages begins halfway down one page with Smart’s son Milo, two years old, asleep on Paul’s bare chest. It continues from there to Paul’s brother David, his heroin addiction, and ends halfway down the next page. Here are the last few lines:
David died of a speedball in an SRO hotel. The D.C. cops found lipstick traces on a cigarette butt in a cup-turned-ashtray. No one followed up. We couldn’t.
I miss my brother. We gave Milo his middle name. They never met.
Milo, “the boy we adopted when he was two days old,” goes from infancy to college in the course of this brief book. Paul and Fawn got Milo after a dozen failed adoption attempts, including the time when they brought a girl home from the hospital but had to return her forty-five days later when the birth mother’s mother objected to the adoption. Making a family has not come easy to Paul and Fawn. They came from broken homes, and as our jolly swagman tells us, “I moved nineteen times by the time I finished college. Added another sixteen homes since.”
Death was all around in 2020, but with different eyes we can see that it was always around and always will be. Marriages and families perish. Paul and Fawn made many trips to the marriage counselor and a dozen tries at adoption.
This book is a gift. It ends this way:
Covid was us, these months in 2020. But I still believe. We are more.
From bereavement, forbearance. Come a-waltzing, a-waltzing with me.
With Different Eyes, by Paul Smart & Richard Kroehling. Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press, September 2022. 128 pages. $30.00, paper.
Eugene Mirabelli’s most recent publication is Renato! (McPherson & Co.), a wild, sprawling compendium of three previous stand-alone novels which share characters across generations. His short stories have been reprinted in France, Russia, and China, among other countries. He’s 91, has won his share of grants and awards, and admires the way a new generation of writers is reshaping literature.